About a year ago, 18-year-old college student Lauren Batchelder stood up at a political forum in New Hampshire and told Donald Trump that she didn’t think he was “a friend to women.”
The next morning, Trump fired back on Twitter — calling Batchelder an “arrogant young woman” and accusing her of being a “plant” from a rival campaign. Her phone began ringing with callers leaving threatening messages that were often sexual in nature. Her Facebook and email inboxes filled with similar messages. As her addresses circulated on social media and her photo flashed on the news, she fled home to hide.
“I didn’t really know what anyone was going to do,” said Batchelder, now 19, who has never discussed her experience with a reporter until now. “He was only going to tweet about it and that was it, but I didn’t really know what his supporters were going to do, and that to me was the scariest part.”
This is what happens when Trump targets a private citizen who publicly challenges him.
When Trump tweeted about Batchelder in October 2015, he had fewer than 5 million followers; he now has more than 17 million and has bragged that having a Twitter account is “like owning the New York Times without the losses.” Twitter has become Trump’s cyber-magic wand, allowing him to quickly act on a fleeting idea, a fit of anger or something he sees on television. Now that he is the president-elect, the power of Trump’s tweets has only increased.
With one tweet, Trump can change headlines on cable news, move financial markets or cause world leaders to worry. With one tweet last week, Trump inflamed a conflict with China. With another tweet on Tuesday, Trump caused Boeing stock to plummet. With a third on Wednesday night, Trump prompted a series of threatening calls to the home of a union leader who had called him a liar.
Although Trump said months ago that he was likely to give up Twitter if elected, he has shown little sign of doing so. He will soon inherit the @POTUS account, which has 12.5 million followers.
“I think I am very restrained, and I talk about important things,” Trump said during an interview with the “Today” show this week. “Frankly, it’s a modern-day form of communication. . . . I get it out much faster than a press release. I get it out much more honestly than dealing with . . . dishonest reporters. So many reporters are dishonest.”
For Batchelder, who studies history and gender studies at Saint Anselm College in Manchester, N.H, the abuse continues more than a year later. Five days before the election, she received a Facebook message that read: “Wishing I could f---ing punch you in the face. id then proceed to stomp your head on the curb and urinate in your bloodied mouth and i know where you live, so watch your f---ing back punk.”
During her first semester at Saint Anselm in fall 2015, Batchelder decided to volunteer for former Florida governor Jeb Bush’s campaign, even though her views were much more liberal than his. To her, it was just an enjoyable opportunity to learn more about the Republican Party. She listed the volunteer position on her online résumé but later realized that she truly is a Democrat.
On Oct. 12, 2015, Batchelder attended a bipartisan forum in Manchester and said to Trump: “So, maybe I’m wrong, maybe you can prove me wrong, but I don’t think you’re a friend to women.”
Trump defended himself, saying he gave women positions of power at his construction sites, has influential women in his life and will fund women’s health initiatives.
“I love women, I respect women, I cherish women,” Trump said at one point.
Batchelder asked for the microphone again.
“I want to get paid the same as a man, and I think you understand that, so if you become president, will a woman make the same as a man, and do I get to choose what I do with my body?” she said, then threw her arms up in a questioning gesture.
Trump answered curtly: “You’re going to make the same if you do as good of a job, and I happen to be pro-life, okay?”
CNN and other media outlets covered the striking exchange, which generated conversation online. But Batchelder went to bed that night thinking her moment in the spotlight was over.
After midnight, Trump’s director of social media tweeted out screengrabs of Batchelder’s social-media accounts. Trump’s supporters launched investigations of their own. At 7:39 a.m., Trump tweeted: “The arrogant young woman who questioned me in such a nasty fashion at No Labels yesterday was a Jeb staffer! HOW CAN HE BEAT RUSSIA & CHINA?”
Later that morning, Trump tweeted again: “How can Jeb Bush expect to deal with China, Russia + Iran if he gets caught doing a ‘plant’ during my speech yesterday in NH?”
Tim Miller, Bush’s former spokesman, said the campaign had nothing to do with Batchelder’s asking the question. While the staff was accustomed to Trump’s attacking Bush, they were stunned that he went after a college student.
“If I was going to plant a question, I would have planted a better question,” Miller said Thursday.
Batchelder agreed: “Why would they ever send me out to do a pro-choice question? Guys, [Bush] is pro-life, which was one of my biggest problems with the Republican Party. And so I was like: ‘Why would they ever send me to do that?’”
Logic doesn’t matter to online trolls, who rated Batchelder’s physical appearance, threatened to rape or otherwise hurt her and called her vulgar names. A photoshopped picture popped up online depicting her face covered in semen.
“I love social media, but I also saw the terrible side of social media,” she said. “I definitely tried to focus on something else because when you’re seeing your life being played out in front of you and people are judging it and people are making assumptions about you, you kind of just want to stay away.”
Batchelder turned down interview requests, ignored the nasty messages and threw herself into playing rugby. She became even more interested in women’s issues and wants to be a human rights lawyer. She voted for Hillary Clinton for president.
Trump’s Twitter account says it was created in March 2009, but Trump really started to use the account as a key communication tool in 2012 when he seriously considered running for president, said longtime friend Roger Stone.
“He loves it,” Stone said Thursday. “This is what got him elected — being outspoken.”
Trump dictates many of his tweets to “one of the young ladies” who work in his office.
“So they’ll type it out for me, real fast, bring it in — I’ll be in a meeting. ‘Blah, blah, blah, boom!’ Put an exclamation point here, and they’ll send it out,” Trump said in a May interview on Fox News.
But on weekends, evenings and during early-morning hours — such as when the first tweet about Batchelder was posted — Trump says he writes and sends his own tweets. The messages will often come seconds or minutes after the topic is covered on a major news network. Melania Trump said during an April town hall with CNN’s Anderson Cooper that she has repeatedly told her husband to get off Twitter, especially after midnight.
“Anderson, if he would only listen,” she said. “I did many times. And I just say: ‘Okay, do whatever you want.’ He’s an adult. He knows the consequences.”
Batchelder hopes that Trump stops targeting people on Twitter, especially people such as she who are not public figures, and uses Twitter as President Obama has. She realizes that speaking out is likely to spark another wave of abuse, but she thinks it’s important for people to realize the harm that a single tweet can cause.
“Twitter is such a powerful platform. He can make a difference. He can change the world,” she said. “And, using Twitter, I think he should use it for good. I think he should use it to uplift others.”