Excerpted from a longer piece by Bob Bauer for Lawfare
Donald Trump has made a point of tweeting from @realDonaldTrump, his personal account. While using this personal medium to convey his very personal views, he is still consciously, deliberately acting in his presidential capacity, addressing official matters.
This is an issue of public ethics, because it reveals Trump’s refusal to accept, or worse, to recognize, the difference between public duties and his private whims, impulses or wishes. There are other ways that Trump manifests this ethical failing. He would not completely divorce himself from his business pursuits upon election to the presidency. Unlike every other “modern” president, he denies the public significance of his tax returns and will not release them. He is apparently comfortable demanding that the FBI Director swear his personal loyalty. Family members populate the upper tiers of the West Wing, and he has commissioned his son-in-law, a 36 year-old with no government experience, to manage Middle East policy, the U.S.-Mexico relationship and the reinvigoration of private enterprise.
So, it is unsurprising that if the president experiences personal anger or frustration, he feels free to use the platform of the presidency to launch a personal counterattack or avenge a slight. His personal Twitter account is the means by which the president can strike the personally satisfying retaliatory blow. He commands a vast audience for these blasts because he is the president, but he uses his personal Twitter account for this purpose as if he were still a private citizen and the medium is always, and for any purpose, at his disposal. One day, he can tweet a response to a congressional committee; on the next, he can lash out in personal terms against a member of the media who offended him. He does not see the difference between Donald Trump and President Donald Trump.
It also stands to reason that Trump would express his unhappiness with CNN by retweeting a bit of staged violence at a professional wrestling show. Edward Luce has recently written about the president’s fascination with this brand of entertainment, and he notes a change over time in the stylized drama offered the audience: “Good and evil were replaced with dramas based on nasty personal disputes.” This is how Trump perceives his conflict with the media, as he does other conflicts he encounters in his public role—nasty personal disputes, and to be portrayed as such to his public. The president’s response that he is defending against personal attacks on him invites the obvious answer he should appreciate: he’s president and they’re not.
The presidency as an institution, rather than as a vehicle for the incumbent’s exercise of personal will, runs on disciplined process. President Roosevelt’s fireside chats, his version of “intimate” dialogue with the public, passed through several drafts as they were “fact-checked and re-written six or more times by a team of secretaries, speechwriters, and press specialists.” Roosevelt worked hard for a personal connection with his audience, but he remained squarely within his official role, supported by advisers and staff. Roosevelt understood that he was discharging a public function, and his process reflected his sense of that responsibility. Contrast with this the early morning Trump tweet bursts: issued at will, notable for misspellings, and marked the occasional deletion of the message from the public record when he concludes he hit “send” in haste.
Quinta Jurecic has written brilliantly here about the legal and political complications of a presidency in which the personal and the official have become impossible to distinguish in this tweeting. Jurecic is inspired by medieval executive theory to refer to the conflated roles as the “Twitter politic” and the “Twitter natural. “ The confusion between the two will complicate his personal legal defense and muddy the official record on which his administration will have to defend its policy initiatives. Are these tweets from his personal account presidential records? The National Archives has dodged the question. Trump has invited these uncertainties by retaining the personal account and making intentional use of it for self-expression on whatever moves him to comment at any particular time. In this administration, the boundaries setting off the public from the private are obliterated.
The president’s business career did not educate him in the disciplines required of a fiduciary—someone who, in the dictionary definition, “a person to whom power is entrusted for the benefit of another.” He did not run a public company; he did not answer to shareholders and a board of directors vetted and chosen for experience and independence. Now, it seems clear, he sees the United States government as a Trump enterprise he will operate in just this way. Mr. Trump and his business were one and the same, and his personal wishes and appetites ruled: Now he runs the Trump administration as he did the Trump Organization.
To say his presidency is mercurial, not “modern,” is not to speak only to bouts of temper or boorishness. It is also a judgment on his ethics—on this failure to keep the public and the private separate, which is no better exemplified than by his personalized tweeting through his own Twitter account on public matters. The Standards of Ethical Conduct for Employees of the Executive Branch defines an ethical stance as one that requires the subordination of private interests, concerns or urges to public duty. It is just such a requirement that Trump’s personal tweeting and practice makes it impossible for him to satisfy. Nor does he seem inclined to do so. He seems unwilling to accept the limits—that is, show the self-restraint—that go with a position of public trust.
Of course, politicians must trade off public obligation and their perceived personal interests a fair share of the time. To get elected, they make commitments and raise money; to pass or stop or modify laws, they cut deals. It is not easy and not always pretty—”sausage-making” and all that—but ethical politicians, while struggling with the inevitable conflicts, are expected to keep sight of the fundamental difference between self-interest and the public interest, and between what they may crave for themselves and what the limitations of their public role. They generally understand that they cannot use government staff to arrange for their dry-cleaning or loot the public or campaign treasuries for the payment of their children’s tuitions.
It is not a modernized presidency in which the distinction between the public and the personal is invisible or meaningless. It is one badly lacking in ethical direction, and this is one of its dangers.