This was going to be a story about how President Trump finally figured out a Twitter strategy that even his adversaries could appreciate: encouraging Americans in the path of Hurricane Florence to heed the advice of authorities and evacuate.
Then the president got to thinking about Puerto Rico, and the musings of another human typhoon, former White House aide Omarosa Manigault Newman, came to mind. “I was haunted by tweets every single day,” she whispered in February to a fellow reality show contestant. “What is he going to tweet next?”
Since the time of Franklin Roosevelt, U.S. presidents have sought to circumvent the White House press corps, and have invariably employed the latest technologies to try and accomplish that goal. In other words, Trump’s argument that he needs a way to speak directly to the public because the media are against him is not new – even if, in his case, it’s never been more accurate.
And with more than 50 million followers, Trump can reach more Americans than all the network nightly newscasts put together. Ahead of Hurricane Florence making landfall, he was making productive use of that megaphone: The president tweeted more than 15 times about the storm and government preparedness for the disaster.
But then disaster of another sort struck. Early Thursday, Trump addressed a new study from George Washington University that estimates last year’s hurricane death toll in Puerto Rico to be nearly 3,000. He disputed that in a tweet saying that the increased number was a political tactic from Democrats: “3000 people did not die in the two hurricanes that hit Puerto Rico,” Trump wrote. “When I left the Island, AFTER the storm had hit, they had anywhere from 6 to 18 deaths. As time went by it did not go up by much. Then, a long time later, they started to report really large numbers, like 3000…
“This was done by the Democrats in order to make me look as bad as possible when I was successfully raising Billions of Dollars to help rebuild Puerto Rico,” the president added. “If a person died for any reason, like old age, just add them onto the list. Bad politics. I love Puerto Rico!”
As always, reaction on the internet was fast and furious. Many savaged these claims – “stupid” and “tone deaf” were some of the milder insults – while others said that though it was an unfortunate assertion, it did bring Puerto Rico back into the spotlight.
“Twisted nature of our current political ecosystem is that it took those confounding, conspiratorial Trump tweets to focus our attention on a Puerto Rico crisis that should’ve been top of mind all along,” tweeted Astead W. Herndon, a New York Times reporter. “[L]ike we’d be in day 7 of oped/Woodward gate otherwise.”
Experts in the field say that despite the dustup Trump’s tweets engender, they remain an effective means of communication, particularly in times of crisis or disaster. They reach a broad audience in real time and can provide urgent updates as events unfold.
“I think we’re at a point in time where social media has become the medium for getting out a message quickly and appropriately,” said Matt Anthes, CEO of SociallyMined, a data company that helps companies use social media platforms. He noted that Trump added more Twitter followers in one year than the Federal Emergency Management Agency, with its 713,000 followers, has in total.
“You can scale down and look at who are the followers of Trump that live in the Southeast quadrant that are going to be affected [by the hurricane] and use tools to micro-target them,” Anthes said. “That’s more effective than the FEMA alert system.”
Another expert said that the weight of the office gives Trump more authority than faceless agencies. “People make huge sacrifices to evacuate and can grow distrustful of scientists and forecasters when, the last time they were told to leave due to biblical flooding, the area ended up getting only a few droplets,” said Kalev Leetaru, founder of the GDELT Project, a data company that monitors media globally. “So, when the White House confirms the statements of all those others and says, ‘It’s time to go,’ that may help to shift some people’s opinion that perhaps it really is time to leave.”
(Leetaru is also a media fellow for the RealClearFoundation who contributes to the RealClearPolitics FactCheck Review.)
But sometimes, even tweets on natural disasters have a purely political purpose. This is when it gets dicey for the president. Former Trump campaign adviser Sam Nunberg said that Trump merely wants to counter allegations thrown at him — such as the increased death toll in Puerto Rico, along with the implication that it’s his fault. “They’re trying to set this up that he is a Katrina-like Bush president,” said Nunberg. “He has to preempt and blunt it out and get out the facts.”
Sally Persons is RealClearPolitics’ White House correspondent.