President Donald Trump capped off a multiday tantrum at Twitter for appending a mild fact check to one of his false tweets by retaliating with the power of the federal government. The executive order he signed Thursday is slapdash and incoherent, rooted in a false premise, hypocritical and potentially unconstitutional, legally unenforceable yet dangerously authoritarian, with sections that read like a Fox News screed.
But to analyze the executive order’s flaws is to miss the point entirely.
Trump doesn’t actually care about making good policy, or about the underlying issues involved with regulating social media platforms. He cares about raising the cost of defiance until his perceived enemies break, and that’s what his executive order is intended to do. Even if it never fully takes effect or is thrown out by the courts, it forces Twitter to expend resources fighting it -- but if the company bends to Trump and does what he wants, maybe it will just go away.
Steve Doocy of all people, the notoriously stupid Fox & Friends host who is one of the president’s favorite cable news personalities, inadvertedly nailed it on Wednesday. Social media companies would face “a big headache” if Trump tried to repeal the section of federal law that the executive order targets, he exclaimed, so “they might think twice about putting a footnote on a tweet from the president of the United States.”
Trump is drawing a line between companies that defy him and are punished and those that work to benefit him and receive praise. Hours after Trump said that he would shut down Twitter if he could, he lauded Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg for criticizing Twitter’s decision to fact-check him. Zuckerberg is the poster child for what Trump wants from the head of a social media company. The Republican political operatives he hired to run Facebook’s policy wing have carved out exemptions from the site’s rules for Trump and his media allies. Trump is making clear that it is in the interests of other social media platforms like Twitter and YouTube to adopt that same corporate strategy -- and he will continue to raise the temperature until they do.
Again and again over the course of his presidency, Trump has lashed out against companies for defying him in some way, then found pretexts to wield federal power against them. By threatening his critics’ business interests or even their freedom, he tries to force them to obey his whims and discourage others from following their examples.
Trump’s executive order wasn’t even the only news that day of government action against a company the president had criticized. News broke Thursday afternoon that the Justice Department had hired outside counsel to pursue an antitrust case against Google, YouTube’s parent company. There are reasonable arguments for such a case -- but Trump doesn’t have an anti-monopoly policy, just companies that have aggrieved him. The president has repeatedly lashed out at the company in response to bogus Fox News segments, bellowing that the company’s purported bias against conservatives is “very illegal” and that it will “be addressed” by his administration so that it does not threaten his reelection campaign.
That case is reminiscent of the Trump Justice Department’s effort to block AT&T’s purchase of Time Warner. Again, there were reasonable arguments for that action, but evidence suggests it actually happened because Trump hates the news coverage he receives from Time Warner subsidiary CNN and wanted to block the merger as punishment. A federal judge eventually approved the merger, but only after a yearslong court fight that must have cost the company a hefty sum.
In recent years, Amazon lost out on a massive Defense Department contract, perhaps because of White House intervention, and the president is currently trying to condition desperately needed funds for the U.S. Postal Service on the agency drastically increasing Amazon’s shipping costs. It is surely no coincidence that Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos also owns The Washington Post -- or, as the president calls it when he denounces the paper’s coverage, the “Amazon Washington Post.” (Disclosure: My wife works for the Post.)
Trump’s effort to compel Twitter not to challenge him has overlapped with a similar salvo aimed at MSNBC host and Trump critic Joe Scarborough. Over the past month, Trump repeatedly pushed the vile conspiracy theory that Scarborough murdered a staffer when he was a congressman in 2001. Trump has used that baseless claim first to suggest that MSNBC’s parent company investigate and fire him, then to complain that Scarborough is “allowed to walk the streets,” and finally to argue that law enforcement should look into it. “As you know, there’s no statute of limitations. So, it would be a very good, very good thing to do,” he said during a Tuesday event.
Scarborough has reason to worry -- not because he did anything wrong, but because Attorney General William Barr has shown himself to be willing to concoct federal investigations into the president’s critics. After years of Trump demanding probes into the allegedly criminal actions of various Obama administration law enforcement officials -- and trying to strongarm then-Attorney General Jeff Sessions into pursuing them -- he replaced Sessions with Barr, who has taken action.
Trump is an authoritarian who views the government as an extension of his will and uses it to chill the speech of his critics. That’s what Thursday’s executive order was really all about.