Donald Trump can block Twitter followers once out of office

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Plenty of people are expecting Twitter to ban President Trump’s account once he is out of office, but it is Mr. Trump who will regain the power to do the banning in the near term.

On Inauguration Day, Mr. Trump’s account, @RealDonaldTrump, will revert to being the account of Citizen Trump, and he will once again have the ability to block followers from seeing and commenting directly on his posts.

It’s a power the president lost several years ago when a federal court ruled that when Mr. Trump took office and began to use Twitter to make government statements, his account on the social media platform became a public forum protected by the First Amendment, which meant no more banning.

Back in private life, he will be able to banish with abandon.

Mr. Trump has changed the way presidents communicate, and his Twitter account is ground zero for that experimentation. Now he is about to break ground as the most controversial former president in modern American history, with a direct line to 88.5 million followers.

Never before has the world had such an unvarnished and intimate look at the psyche of the man in the White House.

Followers can track the president’s moods and sleeping patterns and figure out his TV-watching preferences (hint: mostly Fox, with a dose of CNN to get him angry and One America News Network when he feels he is not getting enough love on Fox).

Trump tweets have fired Cabinet secretaries, upended foreign relations and sent federal agencies scrambling to fill out off-the-cuff policy announcements.

Throughout his term, he has given the public an unparalleled look at his thinking.

“We do not have to guess what he thinks about anything, because he tells us,” said Brian L. Ott, a professor at Missouri State University and co-author of “The Twitter Presidency,” a book about Mr. Trump’s account. “We know more about the motives of this president than any president in U.S. history.”

‘American literature’

Mr. Trump’s account is filled with comedy, drama and tragedy, all presented in snippets of 140 or 280 characters.

Writing at The Week, Matthew Walther proclaimed the president’s account to be “American literature.” He called for someone to undertake the task of compiling and annotating Mr. Trump’s missives as a reference for future scholars.

His tweeting and retweeting — more than 25,000 times since Jan. 20, 2017 — has produced reams of scholarship.

One set of researchers writing for the Brookings Institution tracked a spike in violent rhetoric to Trump tweets.

Another set of scholars concluded that Mr. Trump has managed to use his Twitter account to manipulate the press and public by pushing them to obsess over his latest explosions and diverting them “from topics that are potentially harmful to him.”

Indeed, a Trump tweet can derail the 24-hour news cycle, sending journalists rushing for keyboards and cameras to breathlessly recount for the public what the president posted — which is ironic because anyone with a smartphone can see the tweet firsthand.

That is, of course, what makes Mr. Trump’s account unique in presidential history.

There are immortal tweets, such as the inscrutable “covfefe,” and psyche-probing messages, such as the 2018 declaration that he was a “very stable genius.”

Among the more consequential tweets is the one warning Iranian President Hassan Rouhani to “NEVER, EVER THREATEN THE UNITED STATES AGAIN OR YOU WILL SUFFER CONSEQUENCES THE LIKES OF WHICH FEW THROUGHOUT HISTORY HAVE EVER SUFFERED BEFORE.”

The president’s use of capitalization and exclamation points alone could be the subject of a doctoral dissertation.

His most “liked” tweet was the announcement that he tested positive for COVID-19.

Citizen Trump

Mr. Trump and Twitter have grown together.

He took office in 2017 with about 32 million followers. By the start of 2018, he had 45.5 million, then 56.7 million as 2019 dawned, and 68.1 million at the beginning of 2020. He is now at 88.5 million.

Mr. Ott said Mr. Trump’s style of communicating plays directly into the biases of Twitter: It’s geared toward short, simple messages; it rewards impulsivity; and it revels in incivility.

As Mr. Trump faces life outside the Oval Office, his Twitter account will likely become even more central to his communications with the public, particularly if he is serious about mounting another bid for president in 2024.

It’s not like Citizen Trump on Twitter is uncharted territory.

For seven years before he stepped into the Oval Office, Mr. Trump ran one of the more colorful accounts, with unfounded claims about President Obama’s birth certificate and feuding with the likes of entertainer Rosie O’Donnell.

But Twitter and the appetite for Mr. Trump’s brand of bluster have changed.

Thanks to Mr. Trump, Twitter had to develop special rules for world leaders, allowing them to break the platform’s terms of service without facing the same sanctions or bans an average user would, Mr. Ott said.

“If he continues to do this election fraud stuff, under Twitter’s rules, those tweets should be inaccessible. But because he’s in this world leader role right now, they make an exception,” the professor said.

Twitter has indicated that leeway ends once Mr. Trump is out of office, though some analysts question whether the platform will actually pull the plug. Others suggest if Mr. Trump announces another presidential bid, Twitter may feel obligated to keep his account active.

The president’s critics are salivating over the prospect of a ban. They figure he will not be able to restrain himself.

A sports betting website last year even posted odds on when it might happen.

‘Free to block people’

Mr. Trump’s account sparked a major First Amendment row after he moved to block some followers who posted hostile replies to some of his tweets.

That meant Twitter users with those accounts could no longer view or post direct responses to the president’s tweets.

The Knight First Amendment Institute at Columbia University sued on behalf of some of the blocked Twitterites, arguing that as the head of a branch of government, the president cannot barricade his account to block out those with opposing viewpoints.

The president, backed by the Justice Department, argued that the account belonged to Mr. Trump as a citizen who is speaking in his personal capacity when he is tweeting.

Federal judges ruled against the president. They found that Mr. Trump’s account was indeed a public forum, albeit limited.

It didn’t help Mr. Trump’s case that at the same time he was fighting to ban followers, the Justice Department was arguing in another case that Mr. Trump’s tweets constitute official government policy.

Documents obtained by open records requests showed that some of the president’s tweets were being circulated in draft form for approval by government agencies.

But all that changes once Mr. Trump is out of office.

“Then he would be free to block people,” said Katie Fallow, senior staff attorney at the Knight First Amendment Institute.

Eugene Volokh, a First Amendment specialist at the UCLA School of Law, said the crux of the issue is that once out of office, Mr. Trump will no longer be exercising government power and will once again be speaking only for himself.

Mr. Trump’s account will no longer be considered a public forum.

Mr. Volokh saw the back-and-forth over the Trump account as a good stress test for free speech.

“It’s a sign of the health of the First Amendment that the discussion we’re having isn’t whether the government can lock people up for what they say, but whether government officials can block a Twitter user from posting on his account,” he said.

Even when Mr. Trump’s account isn’t the battleground, his tweets have ended up in court.

Immigration rights activists have cited his tweets as evidence of racial bias as they tried to block his travel ban. Racial justice protesters cited his Twitter complaints as evidence of inappropriate motives behind the deployment of federal officers to quell riots on federal property this summer.

Judges have split on how and when to use Mr. Trump’s tweets against him, though the Supreme Court has generally shunned digging through the president’s tweets for motives and instead looked at the substance of the actions themselves.

Mr. Ott said the looming change of administrations will give the whole country a chance to follow the high court’s lead and look beyond @RealDonaldTrump.

“I hope that come Jan. 20 people turn their attention away. That’s my hope. No one who’s not president of the United States should exercise this kind of undue influence on our process,” he said. “The American people have gone to the polls, they’ve voted and they have given us permission not to pay attention anymore. We should listen to them.”

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