One tweet from President Trump on Tuesday serves as a reminder of how far outside the realm of normal politics and its repercussions he operates.
Why is such a tweet unusual for a president?
1. It’s based on something Trump saw on TV this morning.
Most presidents don’t broadcast their enthusiasm for TV news as readily as does Trump. He’ll often tweet responses to things he sees on morning news programs — often on “Fox and Friends.”
That was the genesis for the tweet Tuesday morning. That program ran a segment on the death of a former Guantanamo Bay detainee in an airstrike in Yemen. It mentions that the detainee had been released by President Barack Obama and, at the end, mentions that 122 detainees have reengaged in the war on terror.
The segment aired sometime before 6:30 a.m. Trump tweeted at a little after 7.
But notice what the segment doesn’t say: That those detainees were all released by Obama. Because they weren’t.
2. Trump’s tweet is both wrong — and easily verified.
Data from the Director of National Intelligence released last September breaks down the release of detainees and how many have rejoined the fight.
But the critical detail — added by Trump on the fly — is that the vast majority of those who’ve reengaged were released under George W. Bush.
As you see, 122 of those released have reengaged — 113 of them released under the Bush administration. Another 86 are suspected to have reengaged — 75 under Bush. And one of the nine for whom Obama should be culpable? Killed in Yemen. Another one was already killed, according to the DNI report, along with 29 of those released by Bush.
The Fox report clearly left the impression that the releases happened on Obama’s watch. But it’s trivial to verify the numbers before tweeting if you’re interested in doing so. During the half-hour between the segment and Trump’s tweet, he could easily have picked up the phone and called his intelligence staff for confirmation. But Trump’s relationship with Fox News may actually be far friendlier than is his relationship with America’s intelligence community.
It’s not uncommon for politicians and presidents to get facts wrong. It is uncommon, though, for presidents to get facts wrong that are so easily and so immediately disprovable.
3. Trump’s directly — and falsely — attacking his predecessor.
As a general (but not ironclad) rule, presidents don’t criticize one another directly. There’s a time for campaigning and a time for adhering to the idea that the institutional power of the White House is handed off between men who hold each other in mutual regard, despite partisan tensions. Sure, Obama criticized Bush when he’d talk about the economy that he inherited, but he would never rail against Bush’s “terrible decision[s]” on a whim.
Trump is annoyed at Obama, blaming his predecessor for somehow stirring up anti-Trump sentiment both through protests and through the machinations of the federal bureaucracy. Neither of these claims is supported by robust evidence but, you know. That’s sort of the broader point here, isn’t it?
4. Trump’s team doubled down on the error.
Rather amazingly, Trump’s social media team decided to take it a step further, tweeting Trump’s false factoid from the official White House account for the president. That’s a taxpayer-funded resource repeating an untrue attack against the guy who, until two months ago, had the privilege of tweeting from the @POTUS account.
5. We know what happens next.
You’ve seen this play before, right? You know what happens now.
Do you think that Trump will correct his tweet and apologize to Obama? No, you do not. Trump doesn’t like Bush, either, so it’s perfectly possible that he’ll amend the tweet to somehow slam them both, but the normal course of action here is that he’ll simply never raise the issue again. The falsehood will sit on his Twitter account — and the White House Twitter account — until Twitter goes the way of the dinosaurs sometime in May. (This is a joke about Twitter as a business, for those curious.)
And everyone will shrug: That’s just Trump! Last week, he tweeted an obviously false and easily disproved claim about the Democrats blocking his Cabinet picks — picks for whom he never even sent the necessary paperwork to Capitol Hill. Everyone shrugged; the tweet is still sitting there. That’s just how it works now, apparently. Trump watches TV, tweets something false and everyone just sort of dismisses it as Trump being Trump. Maybe someone will write an amazed, snarky news story about it, but that’s as far as it goes.
About an hour after his tweet about Guantanamo Bay, Trump tweeted something else to “Fox and Friends.”
I’ll note that it’s also unusual for a president to spend two hours watching television news programs in the morning.
Update: During Tuesday’s daily press briefing, Sean Spicer said the president would not be correcting his tweet. “Obviously,” he said, “the president meant, in totality, the number that had been released on the battlefield.” See step 5 above.