As he entered his first week in office, President Joe Biden was handed a priceless gift: the blissful sound of former President Donald Trump’s Twitter silence.
Gone are the pre-dawn tirades, the all-caps declarations, the “Sleepy Joe” mocking, the Fox News-driven agitations and the general incitements. Instead, Biden debuted a flurry of executive orders without ever having to deal with what surely would have been rapid-fire antagonism from the man whose legacy he was dismantling.
Inside the White House, officials insist that their communications strategy hasn’t changed simply because Trump is both gone and silent.
“The President spent two years ignoring Trump’s distractions and staying focused on the message he wanted to deliver, and it paid off with a commanding win,” a White House official said in a statement to POLITICO on Wednesday. “Whether or not Trump slinks back into public view or opens up a Parler account isn’t going to make a difference in how we communicate with the American people.”
But even if the strategy would have remained the same, Biden’s team also concedes that the absence of Trump and his Twitter feed has been a pleasant addition to the job it’s doing.
“Not having to deal with a deranged new tweet every hour? They feel blessed,” an outside adviser said.
Indeed, Twitter’s suspension of Trump’s account has seemed to realign the political universe, minimizing diversions and interruptions as the broader conversation over Biden’s agenda played out. Trump wasn’t there to demand a popular uprising against Biden’s federal mask-wearing mandate. His Twitter megaphone wasn’t hyping the construction job losses that could come when Biden ended the Keystone XL pipeline project. Trump wasn’t calling Biden a “loser” for his Covid-19 vaccination plans, or attacking Anthony Fauci as a failure he should have fired when the nation’s leading infectious disease expert spoke out about how difficult it was for scientists to operate in the Trump administration.
“It has become abundantly clear since his absence on Twitter how much Trump was driving a media narrative,” said Paul Bentz, an Arizona-based Republican strategist and pollster.
Biden still has faced a steady flow of criticism during his short time in office. But nothing has come even comparably close to getting trapped in the gravitational pull of Trump’s Twitter feed, which had the ability to move markets, unseat office holders and tear up news cycles again and again in a matter of hours.
“Trump had an amazing ability to distract from issues. He was able to plant seeds of doubt about entire institutions and regular democratic processes,” said Philip N. Howard, director of the Oxford Internet Institute, which studies the social science of the internet. “Having him off Twitter allows the conversation about climate change to stay on topic — and about evidence. The conversation about race and social inequality can stay focused on policy ideas.”
“He was a kind of sinkhole in the media ecosystem,” Howard continued, “which often trapped professional journalists into covering inane stories or simply burned them out as individuals.”
While Trump’s absence from Twitter has been a gift to Biden early on, it also may end up benefiting the GOP. For years, Republicans pleaded with the former president to tone down the rhetoric and allow Democrats to be judged by their own actions, rather than allow an outrageous Trump tweet to overshadow anything else during the day. Now that he’s off the platform, the party may well be able to run a coordinated, cohesive campaign against the current president.
“Be careful what you wish for,” said Sam Nunberg, who served as a 2016 consultant on Trump’s campaign before being fired. Nunberg said of Biden and the crises facing the nation: “All the focus is now on him and it hasn’t been on him. … He owns it now.”
Still, recent evidence suggests that Biden will benefit in the aggregate from Trump’s Twitter blackout. The former president has long taken on a role as antagonizer in chief, most prominently a decade ago when he pushed the birther issue under former President Barack Obama, questioning whether the 44th president was born in the United States. Initially, Obama viewed Trump as background noise that wasn’t worth a response, as he wrote in his 2020 memoir, “A Promised Land.”
But as national media gave Trump a platform — feeding oxygen to a baseless assertion — it forced Obama’s hand. The then-president eventually released his long-form birth certificate and promptly lectured the media feeding into an effort built on racist undertones. After Trump’s birther conspiracy withered, he moved onto creating havoc in the middle of a global health crisis. When the Ebola epidemic emerged in West Africa, Trump hounded and heckled the Obama administration on Twitter, doubting its ability to contain the disease and warning that massive spread could come to America.
In one tweet, Trump slammed Obama for having chosen “lobbyist and political hack” — and current White House chief of staff — Ron Klain as his Ebola czar. In another, Trump said of Klain: “zero experience in the medical area and zero experience in infectious disease control. A TOTAL JOKE!” He mocked Obama for golfing, and second-guessed a decision to fly U.S. doctors from Africa back to the homeland.
For the Obama team, it was deeply disruptive and complicated its efforts to manage the situation.
“A lot of the fears that gripped this country, specifically in October and November in 2014, were stirred up by Trump’s tweets,” Klain told POLITICO in an interview last year.
In the end, Klain was roundly applauded for staving off an Ebola outbreak in the U.S. But Trump didn’t pay a price. Less than three years later, he was president.
Eric Schultz, who was with the Obama White House during Ebola, said that even with Trump gone from Twitter, obstacles remain for Biden — the top of which is a deeply divided Congress and country.
“Let’s not pretend there is an unobstructed runway here for him.” Schultz said. “This idea that Biden doesn’t face fierce headwinds is silly.”
But other Democrats are more optimistic about what the Trump-less social media landscape has in store. John Anzalone, a pollster who worked for both Biden and Obama, said that since Trump has been muted, Americans are likely feeling a sense of relief — a reset of sorts. Anzalone said it fell on the media whether to allow Trump to still play an outsized place in today’s dialogue, given the violence that broke out after the Capitol riots.
“Would the press still be reporting what he says? When does it end? When does his criticism become irrelevant? At some point, it’s just an angry citizen, ex-president,” Anzalone said. “I don’t think it would change anything the Biden administration is doing. They’re just putting their heads down and getting things done.”