“@jeffzeleny Pathetic — you have no sufficient evidence that Donald Trump did not suffer from voter fraud, shame!” tweeted @FiIibuster, a 16-year-old on the Internet. Trump quoted that tweet and posted it to his own account, adding “Bad reporter.”
Trump’s election has already created a lot of questions about how — and even if — reporters should cover Trump’s Twitter account, now that he is president-elect. One of the slipperier ones: Do those quoted tweets signal an endorsement from Trump?
We’ve answered a few of the questions that tend to come up around how Trump uses retweets, now that the habit has carried over after the election.
Why do Trump’s retweets look kind of weird?
The president-elect uses an outdated format for “quote tweeting” another user, one that can be confusing to people who aren’t used to his Twitter habits. Trump’s retweets repeat the content of someone else’s tweet, enclosed with quotation marks. Sometimes he has space to add commentary at the end. Like this:
The retweet was, “you should run for president!” Trump himself added: “Thanks, very nice!”
Sometimes, as seen in the “bad reporter” tweet referenced at the beginning of this piece, Trump either deletes or forgets to close the quotation marks around the quoted tweet, blurring the line between his commentary and that of someone else.
Twitter eliminated this confusing way of quote-tweeting in 2015 and replaced it with the ability to embed another user’s tweet instead. The change rolled out to iPhone users and Web users first. Twitter updated their Android app — which it appears Trump himself uses when he personally is tweeting — shortly after that.
The new “quote tweet” makes it much clearer who is saying what, and provides more space for commentary. Trump’s account has occasionally used the newer way of quote tweeting, particularly when the tweet comes from an iPhone:
It’s worth noting that the new quote tweets don’t show up very nicely in articles like this one.
What does Trump say about his own retweets?
Some of Trump’s most controversial tweets as a candidate have been retweets, which is perhaps why his answer whether he endorses his retweets has changed depending on context.
In mid-2015, a reporter asked Trump generally if he endorses what he retweets. He said, “I do retweets, and I mean, to a certain extent, I do, yeah. I think that’s right. Do you want me to say no? You know, I retweet, I retweet for a reason.”
Then, last November, Trump retweeted a graphic with factually incorrect data on race and crime. Fox News’s Bill O’Reilly asked him about it on his show, first telling Trump that he was “looking out” for him and that tweets like the one in question gave “the other side” evidence to “tell the ill-informed voter that you’re a racist.”
Trump replied: “This was a retweet. Bill, I’m sure you’re looking out for me. Everybody is. This was a retweet. This was a retweet.”
In February, two Gawker writers created a bot to try to trick Trump into retweeting a quote from Mussolini, which he did.
This time, Trump’s answer (to NBC’s Chuck Todd) was, “It’s a very good quote, it’s a very interesting quote, and I know it . . . I know who said it. But what difference does it make whether it’s Mussolini or somebody else? It’s certainly a very interesting quote.”
A month before that, Trump’s account had retweeted someone with the username @WhiteGenocideTM. Other retweet controversies include the time his account retweeted, and then deleted, an image first circulated by self-proclaimed white supremacists, and a retweet of a cruel meme about Ted Cruz’s wife:
Trump also once responded to questions about why he repeated, on stage at a rally, a comment from an audience member calling Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Tex.) “a pussy” by saying it was “like a retweet.”
“I would never say a word like that,” he said. “by the way, can I tell you what? The audience went crazy. Standing ovation. Five thousand people went nuts, they loved it. You know, we’re having fun.”
So . . . are retweets endorsements from Trump?
Trump’s history of commenting on what he means by his retweets suggests that even a definitive answer from him on the topic could shift or reverse with time and context.
But for one perspective, we asked someone who has read pretty much every tweet Trump has ever written to weigh in.
“His manual retweets fall into three broad categories,” emailed Brendan Brown, a Boston-based programmer who runs the Trump Twitter Archive, a searchable database of all of Trump’s tweets since he joined the platform in 2009. According to him, Trump’s retweets are usually either:
1. Praise and compliments.
2. Insults to which he wants to respond.
or 3. News and opinions that are favorable to him and/or unfavorable to people he doesn’t like.
It seems safe to assume that Trump endorses the sentiments of retweets in the first category, but not in the second. The third is where we wander into the complexities of the “fake news” discussion that blew up in the wake of Trump’s election — and the ways in which the president-elect views and consumes information.
“The veracity of the third category doesn’t really matter,” Brown said. “If people are saying it, there must be some truth to it. He can always shift the blame elsewhere when pressed by saying he wasn’t the one who said it..”
Brown also observed that he tends to ease into the strength of his endorsement in this third category. He’ll start by “repeating the information with caveats,” often as a retweet. Eventually, “he’ll start repeating the information as truth.”
“I would view anything he retweets as somewhere between a tacit endorsement of the sentiment and a wholehearted acceptance of its truth,” he said.
Overall, the Twitter habits of President-elect Trump have been similar, if a bit less prolific, to those of Candidate Trump and Reality Show Star Trump. There’s a mix of sanitized statements that appear to come from his campaign alongside Trumpier tweet rants about Hamilton and the New York Times. The retweets are often, too, directly done by Trump.
Unless Trump’s access to his Twitter account dramatically changes after his inauguration, it seems we can’t assume that these habits will go away over the next four years.