When your president impulsively blasts out some crazy nonsense via twitter, there is a certain amount of comfort to be taken in knowing that whatever it is can’t and won’t happen because it’s, well, crazy.
But he’s the President. He tweeted it. It’s not nothing. It’s what was going through his tiny orange brain at that instant, even if he contradicts it the next. And even though tweets don’t (yet) have the force of law, or even an Executive Order, they do have an effect. At the very least, they can be a not-so-subtle, direct, and important threat. At worst they may have real consequences, possibly unintended.
Tweety often threatened to arrest and deport millions of undocumented immigrants, mainly through Twitter. None of these threats took the form of any formal policy (though he did sign some Executive Orders, which provide “guidance” on enforcing current regulations), much less law, and it was unclear how much of the bold talk could ever really be implemented or pass legal muster.
But simply tweeting about it bypassed all that messy debate that goes with making law, and all that messy paperwork and interaction with agencies that are supposed to be part of making regulations. The President had tweeted something, and this was good enough for Immigration officers and police, many of whom agreed with the sentiment behind it. From this February NYT piece:
Gone are the Obama-era rules that required them to focus only on serious criminals. In Southern California, in one of the first major roundups during the Trump administration, officers detained 161 people with a wide range of felony and misdemeanor convictions, and 10 who had no criminal history at all.
“Before, we used to be told, ‘You can’t arrest those people,’ and we’d be disciplined for being insubordinate if we did,” said a 10-year veteran of the agency who took part in the operation. “Now those people are priorities again. And there are a lot of them here.”
Interviews with 17 agents and officials across the country, including in Florida, Alabama, Texas, Arizona, Washington and California, demonstrated how quickly a new atmosphere in the agency had taken hold. Since they are forbidden to talk to the press, they requested anonymity out of concern for losing their jobs.
The hoped-for effect was achieved just that quickly: illegal immigration apparently declined as many people feared heavy-handed treatment, legal or not.
When Tweety gives a speech to police about treating people they arrest less gently – don’t worry if they get a little bruised as you put them in the squad car – it has an effect. A lot of people wanted to hear something like that. Even if it’s followed by few hours of outrage on MSNBC and a few clarifying interviews with police chiefs assuring us that their policy will remain as respectful of law as always, you can bet there will be a few more bruises now. It’s inevitable.
When Tweety preposterously decreed over Twitter that transgender people will no longer be welcome in any role in the military, generals of all descriptions immediately emerged to explain that nothing will change until due process takes its course. But something will change. A chilling effect immediately takes effect and trans people will be less inclined to begin or continue a military career. Their numbers will be reduced simply by virtue of a tweet or two.
Tweety blames China for the rise of North Korea’s nuclear program. In a tweet. He thus creates a diplomatic problem. China will not ignore Presidential tweeting. They will adjust their behavior one way or another, irrespective of the diplomatic protocols of the past. Even if everyone agrees that such tweeting is not a substitute for the State Department, or treaty obligations, or existing back channel communications, tweeting is not nothing. It has a disruptive and possibly unintended effect.
Tweety is furious that the A.C.A. has not been repealed. He has repeatedly tweet-threatened to withhold payments known as “cost sharing reductions” to the insurance companies. This threat alone can de-stabilize the insurance markets and possibly have devastating effects on millions of people.
Tweety is upset so it’s time to threaten the insurance companies, congress, and those who rely on their health insurance, in some cases to simply breathe.
And in this case, it is something that’s actually within the power of the president to do. It’s not an empty threat. And, as is his custom, Tweety tells us he’ll let us know what he’s going to do later in the week and that we’ll just have to “see”. No need for Congress or the Supreme Court. Just “we’ll see”.
Tweets are not nothing. A few crazy tweets is all it takes to make a mess.