When Donald Trump was still an all-over-the-map presidential candidate, the New York Times laughed off the notion that he could profitably sue the newspaper over its stories on his treatment of women. After it published a story about women alleging the same sort of conduct that Trump boasted about in that “Access Hollywood” tape — where he spoke of grabbing women “by the p—-” — the Trump people requested a retraction.
No dice, wrote Vice President and Assistant General Counsel David McCraw:
The significant exertion required to further tarnish Trump’s reputation surfaced Wednesday on Twitter. Like many of the more newsworthy exchanges in the past 18 months, this one cannot be repeated in a family newspaper without some careful decency-oriented edits. “Either Trump is f[—]ing his daughter or he’s shirking nepotism laws. Which is worse?” read the tweet. It came from Julia Ioffe, a contract writer for Politico whose hiring by the Atlantic to cover foreign policy/national security/politics was announced last week. Ioffe’s quip was paired with a link to a story at the Hill indicating that the Trump people were contesting a report that Ivanka Trump might be getting space in the White House reserved for first ladies.
For years and years, Trump has been complaining about allegedly defamatory news stories that actually bear bulletproof reporting and provable facts. Now comes a legitimately damaging suggestion — that he may be having sex with his daughter, a criminal offense. “Whoa, whoa,” says David Andich, a lawyer who vetted copy for the Washington City Paper when the Erik Wemple Blog worked there. “The more you get into a person’s innermost actions and life, the more that person has the potential to argue that the these most personal things you say about him” are potentially actionable — though as president-elect, Trump is “virtually libel-proof,” says Andich.
The act suggested by Ioffe is a leap from the admittedly creepy details on the public record with respect to Trump and Ivanka. As the New York Times lawyer letter states, Trump once told radio host Howard Stern that it was okay to call his daughter a “piece of ass.” He also once said that if Ivanka weren’t his daughter, “perhaps I’d be dating her.”
With such a heinous documented set of facts, why would Ioffe feel compelled to push the limits in her tweet? She declined an on-the-record interview request for this post. Her experience with Trumpworld, however, is grounded in trauma and abuse. This year, she wrote a fantastic profile of Melania Trump for GQ, an undertaking that had Ioffe spending a great deal of time in the future first lady’s native Slovenia. Excavated in all that enterprise were new and somewhat embarrassing family details, including Melania Trump’s mystery half brother. Melania Trump ripped the story on Facebook, and from there, ugliness descended. Anti-Semitic social-media obsessives abused Ioffe on their platforms of choice, and the threats were a multimedia affair. A police report filed by Ioffe tells the tale: “C-1 states that an unknown person sent her a caricature of a person being shot in the back of the head by another, among other harassing calls and disturbing emails depicting violent scenarios.”
Pressed by CNN’s Wolf Blitzer on the hatred that came Ioffe’s way, Trump declined to condemn. “I don’t have a message to the fans. A woman wrote a article that was inaccurate.” Therewith a little context for Ioffe’s Trump tweets.
Presented with the commentary about incest and nepotism, Politico reacted memo-rably.
It was a stern message from a Politico leadership bearing pink social-media sores. Not long after the presidential election, Politico Magazine national editor Michael Hirsh resigned after posting addresses for white nationalist leader Richard Spencer. “Stop whining about Richard B. Spencer, Nazi, and exercise your rights as decent Americans. Here are his two addresses,” wrote Hirsh on social media. Politico editor Carrie Budoff Brown advised staffers in a Nov. 29 memo, “The power of our work comes from independent reporting — a power that is diluted if we are seen as losing detachment or cheerleading for any type of agenda. These are passionate times in our politics, and we share the revulsion when our journalists and their work are subject to unfair attacks. We will by all means defend that work and our rights as journalists, but in doing so we won’t surrender professionalism. Lamentably, we have seen too many occasions of late in which posts on social media came close to a line or went over.”
That warning came just a couple of weeks before Ioffe’s Wednesday tweet, proof that all-staff social-media warning memos are more helpful to media reporters than to their intended audience. Politico also has a set of social-media guidelines for employees. As a contractor, Ioffe reportedly didn’t review that particular document. The guidelines instruct Politiquites: “If you’re unsure whether you should post something on Twitter or Facebook — don’t. Always err on the side of caution.” And: “Limit your engagement with any user who is critical of your work over Twitter or Facebook.” A twitspat prohibition!
No Politico reporter or contractor, of course, should need staid social-media guidelines to refrain from a suggestion that the country’s president-elect is getting it on with his daughter. A crescendo effect was at work here, according to Politico source, as tweets from Ioffe’s account routinely prompted “heartburn” up and down the Politico hierarchy. An example:
When Politico media reporter Hadas Gold in October posted a picture to Facebook of an anti-Semitic threat that she’d received, Ioffe took a screenshot and tweeted it to her followers, sparking something of a confrontation with Politico management. At the time, Politico was trying to get Twitter to act on accounts that were spreading anti-Semitic abuse — and Twitter told Politico, in essence, Hey, if you want to keep trolls out of the mainstream, tell your people not to promote their work, according to sources. “Twitter was very responsive on this one,” says a Politico source. In any case, Gold asked Ioffe to take down the tweet, and she did so.
Wednesday’s flap played out on the platform where it all started. After the Erik Wemple Blog posted Politico’s memo, Ioffe responded:
A Politico source insists that the tweet came to the attention of management through “horrified” reporters, not through the Trump campaign. Though Politico is just a decade old, it already has fiefdoms that grease the way to clashes of this sort. Ioffe was a contractor for Politico Magazine, which does opinion stuff, and she traveled to the conventions as a Politico writer and otherwise maintained a steady newsroom presence. At the same time, regular old Politico now has a White House staffing level of seven reporters, whose work benefits from the absence of outlandish tweets aimed at the president-elect.
As these episodes tend to do, Ioffe’s run through social-media misery ended with a bit of deletion (the offending post is gone), a touch of self-justification and a fair bit of regret:
And then the focus switched to the Atlantic, which noted Ioffe’s apology and expressed confidence that she’d comply with its standards. “As most of you probably know, we had a bit of a Twitter controversy today that concerned a statement made by a writer we’ve just hired,” Editor in Chief Jeffrey Goldberg wrote in a note to staffers. “This seems like a good moment to remind all of you of something I’ve tried to stress: When you feel a need to express yourself on Twitter, or on other social media platforms, you might consider asking yourselves a couple of questions: Is what I’m about to say going to help enhance the reputation of The Atlantic, or hurt it? Will my post do damage to my colleagues — to their reputations, and to their ability to perform their journalistic duties?” No one ever runs through those considerations before launching a dumb tweet.