Early Thursday morning, President Donald Trump took to Twitter to share his views about the school shooting in Parkland, Florida, that left 17 dead Wednesday,
“So many signs that the Florida shooter was mentally disturbed, even expelled from school for bad and erratic behavior,” he tweeted. “Neighbors and classmates knew he was a big problem. Must always report such instances to authorities, again and again!”
Later in the morning, Trump spoke to the country from the White House. Here’s a piece of what he said:
“No child, no teacher, should ever be in danger in an American school. No parent should ever have to fear for their sons and daughters when they kiss them goodbye in the morning. Each person who was stolen from us yesterday had a full life ahead of them, a life filled with wondrous beauty and unlimited potential and promise. Each one had dreams to pursue, love to give and talents to share with the world. And each one had a family to whom they meant everything in the world. Today we mourn for all of those who lost their lives. We comfort the grieving and the wounded. And we hurt for the entire community of Parkland, Florida, that is now in shock and pain and searching for answers.”
It sounds like two different people, right? In the Trump tweet, there’s a “we saw this coming and you should have too” tone. He’s not blaming the community for not acting before the shooter could take action, but he’s walking pretty close to that line.
Trump’s speech, on the other hand is prototypical presidential stuff – comforting a hurting community and a scared nation while providing reassurance to the youngest of us that they will be safe and don’t need to worry. Critics will note that Trump didn’t endorse any specific policies in speech to stop or curtail school shooting, but that’s an unreasonable standard. President Barack Obama often simply sought to comfort this soon after a mass shooting; policy came later.
How do you explain the difference between the sentiments expressed by Trump via Twitter and those he conveyed in his speech? Easy. One is Twitter Trump. The other is Teleprompter Trump.
Twitter Trump is the swashbuckling, talk first-think later, fiercely anti-PC id of the President. In his years outside of politics, this was the only Trump that existed. He would opine about pop culture, music and politics – and sometimes all three at once – via Twitter. Most people assumed that habit would stop once Trump began to be taken seriously as a presidential candidate. Or certainly when he actually won the White House.
But through it all, Trump kept right on tweeting – much to chagrin of his senior staff and, if polling is to be believed, even many of his supporters.
Teleprompter Trump is a newer arrival. During his 2016 presidential campaign, he proudly spoke (and spoke and spoke) off the cuff, painting the use of teleprompters as the crutch of status-quo politicians who either didn’t know what they thought or were afraid to say it.
Once Trump won, however, he began to lean on the prompter more. His inauguration speech was delivered via teleprompter as was his State of the union speech earlier this month and his address Thursday.
Teleprompter Trump is more measured. More statesmanlike. More eloquent. More, well, presidential.
The question is which of these two Trumps – Twitter or Teleprompter – is the actual Trump?
Before I answer that – and I will! – I think it’s worth noting that we’ve never been able to have a debate like this about a president. The relative recentness of Twitter’s ubiquity in the culture means that only Trump and Obama have even had the capability of using it as a communication tool.
And Obama’s Twitter feed was nothing like Trump’s. He would occasionally send tweets himself – they were always signed “B.O.” – but they were the sort of treacly pap that fill stacks and stacks of presidential press releases. Obama’s Twitter feed never really gave us any insight into his interior life or provided any sort of contrast to the public position of his White House.
Trump’s Twitter feed is all interior life. It is a window into what he thinks at any given moment. It is sometimes a running stream-of-consciousness look into his cable TV habits. Other times it’s a chance for him to lash out – often at his own administration – for perceived failures. The views Trump expresses on Twitter regularly clash with – and oftentimes totally undermine – positions his White House has previously staked out.
For those reasons, I think that Twitter Trump is closer to who Trump actually is and what he really believes. And that’s the one, therefore, we need to pay attention to.
Take Thursday, for example. No aides were aware that Trump was going to send that tweet on the Parkland shooting. No aides reviewed it before it went out. Trump thought it and then he tweeted it. That’s it.
The speech, on the other hand, was a carefully calibrated moment – an attempt by Trump’s top advisers to put him in a position where he looked every bit a president – as a way to counter the narrative that he lacks empathy and cannot unite the country following tragedies like the one in Florida on Wednesday.
His Twitter feed is the real Trump. Teleprompter Trump is who his aides want him to be.