President Trump has consistently defended his use of Twitter with a simple explanation: It’s his way of speaking directly to the American people, without the filter of the news media.
It’s the real Trump, in other words, sharing the news and information that he thinks is important. Granted, most Americans would rather he use the social media tool differently, but Trump is adamant. It’s his voice, untouchable by any handlers who seek to constrain him — and he will keep using it.
Over the past week, his use of Twitter has been remarkable.
Since last Friday, he’s tweeted about anti-police violence protests at NFL games some two dozen times — far more than he’s tweeted about North Korea or about health-care revision or about the special election in Alabama. It has consumed him. Four tweets on Saturday. Seven on Sunday. Eight on Monday. Four before 9 a.m. on Tuesday.
The pattern of Trump’s tweeting is clear: He latches on to a subject and then floods the zone (to use an apt analogy) for a few days. Now it’s the NFL protests. Before that, international relations (through the lens of the U.N. General Assembly’s week of meetings). Before that, the aftermath of Hurricane Harvey in Texas and Irma in Florida.
Dot size corresponds to the number of tweets each day on the subject.
For those storms, Trump’s tweeting was incessant. Between Aug. 26 and Sept. 3, he tweeted about Harvey and its aftermath nearly 40 times. When Irma landed in Florida, another 30 tweets, running the gamut of preparation tips, statements of assurance about the government’s role and tracking his own visits to the state.
Trump clearly relished his ability to act as CEO of emergency management. Americans generally agreed: Post-ABC polling released on Sunday indicates Trump’s handling of the storms in Texas and Florida was viewed positively — a rarity for an historically unpopular president.
What’s gone mostly unmentioned by the president, though, is Hurricane Maria, which stripped huge swaths of the island of Puerto Rico of resources, power and vegetation. Washington Post reporters have documented the plight of the island, with people desperate for aid not finding much.
We’ve marked Maria’s landfall on the chart above, too. Until Monday night, the president’s official communications system had been all but silent on the storm’s destruction, with only one tweet after the storm landed. “Governor @RicardoRossello,” Trump tweeted, “We are with you and the people of Puerto Rico. Stay safe!” He added a hashtag: #PRStrong.
After the contrast between his eager tweets about the NFL and apathy about Puerto Rico was raised by journalists on Monday, Trump tweeted several times about the island.
“Texas and Florida are doing great,” he wrote, “but Puerto Rico, which was already suffering from broken infrastructure and massive debt, is in deep trouble. Its old electrical grid, which was in terrible shape, was devastated. Much of the Island was destroyed, with billions of dollars owed to Wall Street and the banks which, sadly, must be dealt with. Food, water and medical are top priorities — and doing well.”
The message Trump is trying to convey with those tweets (which we cleaned up a bit for legibility) is pretty clear: If Puerto Rico is going badly, it’s not my fault. Why the territory’s debt was worth mentioning is hard too understand outside of the context of Trump portraying it as a place that is responsible for its own problems.
On Tuesday morning, even Fox News suggested that Trump’s portrayal of things as “doing well” was off the mark.
Trump’s tendency to downplay or shift blame for things that aren’t going well is well documented. There was his insistence that a president’s first 100 days didn’t really matter once he hit that mark with little to show for it. Then he dumped the failure of efforts to repeal Obamacare in the lap of Republicans on Capitol Hill, despite insisting on the campaign trail that his dealmaking ability could work miracles.
The paucity of Trump’s tweets about Puerto Rico may reflect, in part, a disinterest in discussing something going poorly for which blame is hard to pass off to someone else.
The frequency of Trump’s tweets about NFL are almost certainly similarly motivated by his emotional response to the subject. Trump’s long-embraced ostentatious displays of patriotism, beginning with his legal fight to fly a giant American flag at Mar-a-Lago a decade ago. At one campaign stop during the 2016 election, Trump literally stopped to hug the American flag before taking the stage for a rally.
This is an issue which resonates for Trump personally and politically. It’s the sort of culture-war scrap he loves, allowing him to pick fights with cultural elites (in the form of well-paid, mostly nonwhite athletes) and to easily whip up public sentiment.
Long-haul recovery efforts that bear no immediate signs of reward are not the sort of struggle Trump enjoys. It’s hard not to draw an obvious conclusion: Trump tweets more about the NFL than Puerto Rico because he is more interested in talking about the NFL than talking about Puerto Rico. I mean, they haven’t even paid their debts to Wall Street! For the past two weeks, he’s pledged to visit the territory, home to 1 million more American citizens than Houston. No travel plans have yet been announced. (Update: On Tuesday morning, the White House announced that Trump will visit Puerto Rico next week.)
As this article was being written, Trump tweeted again about Puerto Rico.
This was less about the hurricane, of course, than about achieving the goal of his tweets from Monday night: Insulating himself from any blame.
In short order, the president again returned to the subject that’s really driving him.
Stay tuned for more on that subject shortly, we assume.