Qatari crisis shows grave implications of Trump’s Twitter account

Qatari crisis shows grave implications of Trump’s Twitter account

Yes, the media should take statements from the president seriously, be they on Twitter or any other platform

Blog ››› ››› ZACHARY PLEAT

Sarah Wasko / Media Matters
Sarah Wasko / Media Matters

President Donald Trump’s staffers have excoriated the media for covering the president’s tweets and for questioning his use of the platform, claiming that "it's social media," not official government policy. However, the Qatari government’s bewildered reaction to Trump’s tweets criticizing the Persian Gulf state over terrorism financing, followed by the president contradicting his secretary of state’s call to ease a recent blockade against Qatar by other Arab nations, demonstrates that journalists should ignore White House staffers’ admonishments and treat Trump's social media comments as presidential statements.

On June 5, White House counselor Kellyanne Conway and deputy assistant to the president Sebastian Gorka made television appearances where they lectured journalists about their coverage of the president’s tweets. When hosts on NBC’s Today and CNN’s New Day asked Trump’s staffers about tweets he had sent earlier that morning, they derided the hosts for their, as Conway put it, “obsession with covering everything [Trump] says on Twitter.” Gorka also repeatedly told his interviewer that the interviewer was “obsessed” with Trump’s tweets and tried arguing that “a hundred characters is not policy. … It’s not policy. It’s social media.”

Enter the sudden diplomatic crisis between Qatar, which hosts America’s largest military base in the region, and other members of the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC). Several Arab nations cut diplomatic ties with Qatar and cut off access routes to its territory because of the nation’s supposed support for radical Islamist groups. Trump reacted to the volatile situation by posting a series of tweets taking credit for the move to isolate Qatar -- while also explaining why he uses social media to communicate:

Trump staffers’ may insist to the media that the president’s tweets aren’t policy and shouldn’t be taken seriously, but the Qatari government apparently feels otherwise. In a June 6 interview with The Daily Beast, Qatar’s ambassador to the U.S., Meshal bin Hamad Al Thani, stated that the Trump administration didn’t express any hostility to Qatar until Trump began tweeting:

Qatar’s brand new ambassador to Washington was already bewildered, along with much of the rest of his country, at dramatic moves by several Arab nations in the past 48 hours to cut diplomatic and trade ties with the tiny Gulf nation. The hate tweets by Donald Trump only made things worse.

“We were surprised,” said Ambassador Meshal bin Hamad Al Thani, perhaps the understatement of the year from the diplomat who is just a couple of months into his post here. “No one approached us directly and said, ‘Look, we have problems with this and this and this,’” he told The Daily Beast in his first on-the-record interview since the controversy broke.

[...]

President Donald Trump hailed the move in tweets as proof his recent visit to the region was a success. “They said they would take a hard line on funding… extremism, and all reference was pointing to Qatar. Perhaps this will be the beginning of the end to the horror of terrorism,” he tweeted.

But here’s the strange thing. Trump had hailed the Gulf nation in his landmark summit in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia, calling Qatar “a crucial strategic partner,” and he met with Qatari leader Emir Sheikh Tamim Bin Hamad Al-Thani—and raised no complaints, the ambassador said.

“We participated in Riyadh. We had a good meeting with the president and with [Saudi] King Salman—nothing was raised,” he said. The Treasury Department has praised Qatar’s work on terrorist financing, and the gulf nation plays host to a massive U.S. air base. Its special operations forces fight side by side with American special operators on a number of battlefields.

“It’s unfortunate to see these tweets,” the ambassador said. “We have close coordination with the United States. They know our efforts to combat financial terrorism and terrorism.”

So much for the president’s tweets not being government policy.

Trump’s June 9 press conference underscored the importance of media scrutinizing the president's social media posts. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson had publicly defended Qatar just an hour before the presser and had called for the Arab countries that had severed ties with the Persian Gulf state to “immediately take steps to de-escalate the situation and put forth a good faith effort to resolve the grievances they have with each other.” But during a presser with the president of Romania, Trump slammed Qatar, again accusing it of having “been a funder of terrorism at a very high level,” and cited Tillerson’s support of his idea that “the time has come to call on Qatar to end its funding” of terrorism. As it turns out, Trump’s tweets were a clear indication of his thinking at the time and showed that journalists should ignore Conway, Gorka, and anyone else from the administration urging them to discount their importance.

Just ask the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals, which just cited a Trump tweet as an "official statement" of the president.

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