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‘Like a rocket’: Trump revels in his love-hate relationship with Twitter

The Debrief: An occasional series offering a reporter’s insights

After the social media summit July 11 President Trump gave comments. He discussed his tweeting process and his followers, likes and retweets. (Video: The Washington Post, Photo: Jabin Botsford/The Washington Post)

Several minutes into President Trump’s social media summit at the White House on Thursday, the president grew nostalgic, reminiscing on some of his greatest Twitter hits.

“Remember when I said somebody was spying on me?” he asked.

That “somebody” was President Barack Obama. And Trump was referring to a series of his own tweets in March 2017 in which he falsely — and with no evidence offered — accused his predecessor of committing what would probably have been an illegal act. “This is Nixon/Watergate,” Trump wrote in one missive. “Bad (or sick) guy!”.

But to hear Trump tell it now, the entire controversy — which gripped the nation for weeks to come — was simply a lark, a convenient way for him to boost his social media following into the stratosphere while dominating the conversation here on Earth.

“I used to watch it,” Trump said Thursday. “It’d be like a rocket ship when I put out a beauty.”

Trump repeated the bogus spying claim and continued. “That thing was like a rocket,” he said, popping up his right thumb and shooting it skyward. “I get a call two minutes later: ‘Did you say that?’ I said, ‘Yeah, I said that.’ ‘Well, it’s exploding. It’s exploding.’ ”

The crowd laughed. The mind reeled. 

Trump’s entire presidency has been something of a social media summit. His tweets send diplomats careening; reporters and editors scrambling; and Republican lawmakers dashing for the safety of the members-only elevators — while also claiming that no, they’ve just been so focused on governing that they somehow missed that latest tweet. 

The tweets are the scroll of cable news chyrons, the noisy static of American politics in 2019 and the subject of endless fascination. 

But in seemingly candid comments, Trump offered a rare glimpse into his largely transactional approach to Twitter. Between remarks to the assembled crowd of conservative social media influencers at the White House, he cracked wise on everything from his spelling mishaps (“If I have a spelling deal, they will put it on”) to his view of the medium (“I call Twitter a typewriter”).

Trump bemoaned the news media’s apparent harping on even his smallest errors — “Any kind of a punctuation mistake, they put it on,” he said,  “so I’m very, very careful” — and claimed that he’s actually something of a human spell-checker. 

“Really I’m actually a good speller, but everyone said the fingers aren’t as good as the brain,” the president said.

In fact, Trump is known for phonetic foibles. One of his mistakes involved the Obama spying tweet, when he wrote, “How low has President Obama gone to tapp [sic] my phones during the very sacred election process?”

Trump’s spelling failings run the gamut, from routine typos and benign autocorrect changes — which is what presumably transformed the name of Trump’s wife, Melania, into “Melanie” in one 2018 Twitter update on her health after a kidney infection — to more embarrassing mistakes. He has repeatedly confused “council” with “counsel,” misspelled the names of world leaders and once famously tweeted a seemingly incomplete thought that ended with this humdinger of a cliffhanger: “covfefe.”

The summit included a blown-up poster of Trump’s subsequent explanation tweet, which read, “Who can figure out the true meaning of ‘covfefe’??? Enjoy!” 

The president waxed poetic on how Twitter has replaced the more mundane news release when his administration wants to communicate news to the world. When he puts a statement out in a news release, Trump said, “people don’t pick it up.” 

But, he continued with relish, “If I put it out on social media, it’s like an explosion. Fox, CNN, crazy MSNBC.” 

Trump also talked about his almost childlike glee in sending out a tweet and watching the number of people who follow on Twitter methodically tick up. 

“A good tweet, it goes up,” the president said.

Adopting the tone of an auctioneer, Trump began rattling through how his follower count would creep northward, often after an incendiary missive. “It used to go up, it would say 7,000, 7,008-7,000, 7,017, 7,024, 7,032, 7,044, right?” he said, to laughter. “Now it goes 7,000, 7,008, 6,998. Then they go 7,009, 6,074. I say, ‘What is going on? It never did that before.’ ”

He continued, moving his hand up and down as if to track a ragged stock market: “It goes up and then they take it down, then it goes up. I had never had that.”

A Twitter representative denied Trump’s assertion, a claim his allies have also made previously, that Twitter is deliberately making it difficult for his supporters to follow him.

“Our focus is on the health of the service, and that includes work to remove fake accounts to prevent malicious behavior,” the representative said. “Many prominent accounts have seen follower counts drop, but the result is higher confidence that the followers they have are real, engaged people.”

During the presidential campaign, Trump once quoted an admirer’s description of him as “the Ernest Hemingway of a hundred and forty characters.” On Thursday, the president made a similar throw-back reference to describe the platform.

“I call Twitter a typewriter,” he said. “That’s what I really call Twitter because it goes on to Facebook automatically and it goes on to Instagram and it goes on to television — more so Fox than it does CNN.”

But, he added, with no evident displeasure: “If it’s something bad, they’ll put it on.”