President Donald Trump (or possibly an authorized staff member) took the unusual step on Monday of commenting in real-time during a congressional hearing as he dishonestly spun and mischaracterized the testimony of top level officials in his own administration as they answered questions under oath from members of the House Intelligence Committee.
Whereas international attention was drawn to the high-profile testimony of FBI director James Comey and NSA director Michael Rogers on alleged Russian interference in last year's election, the White House live-tweeting stood out as the latest unorthodox behavior from a president who appears unwilling to let the facts tell the story of a political controversy that has consumed Washington, D.C. since he took office in January.
In an unprecedented display of presidential behavior, committee members were forced to request that Comey and Rogers clarify earlier testimony to committee members after it came to light the White House was sending out tweets that appeared to betray the meaning of their words or the implications of their responses.
Lol they're just fact-checking tweets now pic.twitter.com/OZzgGb8dhj
— Gideon Resnick (@GideonResnick) March 20, 2017
Ari Melber, senior legal correspondent with MSNBC, put it this way:
Probably first time a hearing started with FBI Director rebutting an old POTUS tweet, and wound down with him rebutting a new POTUS tweet.
— Ari Melber (@AriMelber) March 20, 2017
While at exactly 1:15pm EST, Trump used his personal Twitter account (@realDonaldTrump) to congratulate his son and daughter-in-law over their baby announcement, that tweet was sandwiched within a series of messages sent from his offical presidential account (@POTUS) where a bizarre effort was underway to cast the hearing's testimony in a light favorable to the president.
Beginning at 12:33pm EST, approximately two hours into the hearing, the @POTUS account tweeted:
FBI Director Comey refuses to deny he briefed President Obama on calls made by Michael Flynn to Russia. pic.twitter.com/cUZ5KgBSYP
— President Trump (@POTUS) March 20, 2017
Though Comey repeatedly stressed to committee members and the viewing public that any refusal on his part to answer certain questions should not be read or interpreted as anything other than an inability to discuss an ongoing investigation, a Department of Justice protocol, the tweet from the president's official account completely betrayed that request by drawing baseless conclusions from the director's refusal to confirm or deny the existence of a briefing or what may have been discussed during it.
The New York Times' Liam Stack said the implications were significant:
So either the White House is spreading falsehoods about this hearing on its Twitter account or the FBI Director just perjured himself on TV.
— Liam Stack (@liamstack) March 20, 2017
As the Guardian newspaper's Tom McCarthy responded in his live coverage of Monday's hearing—in which he accused Trump of trying to "muddy" the testimony of Comey and Rogers—the tweet was a gross mischaracterization of what transpired. "Trump is encouraging conspiracy-minded speculation about Comey and Obama," McCarthy warned. "The kind of speculation that would discredit the integrity of the FBI, Congress and the presidency and of these proceedings."
Approximately ten minutes later, at 12:42pm EST, the @POTUS account tweeted this lie:
The NSA and FBI tell Congress that Russia did not influence electoral process. pic.twitter.com/d9HqkxYBt5
— President Trump (@POTUS) March 20, 2017
According to McCarthy, the Trump tweet "frames the moment falsely"—essentially by reinventing the definition of the word influence. "Does the electoral process include information-dissemination by the media and -gathering by voters? In that case, the directors said the exact opposite," he observed. And continued:
Precisely as Trump was asserting that the intelligence chiefs had denied Russian influence, Comey and Rogers were testifying that Russian interference in the election had been "unusually loud," as if the whole point of the interference was to destroy the credibility of American democracy by encouraging the intelligence community to flag the activity.
Something else that might erode faith in American democracy: the president running a misinformation campaign that renders sworn testimony by intelligence chiefs incoherent.
But the @POTUS account wasn't done yet. In three subsequent tweets, the president or his surrogate focused on the issues of internal leaks and the process of "masking/unmasking" the identities of those swept up in U.S. intelligence operations. But the White House didn't get that one right either.
As one person who self-described as "an everyday citizen" suggested, the idea of the sitting U.S. president to be live-tweeting such a potentially vital hearing—one in which it was revealed by Comey that the Justice Department has an active investigation into the Trump campaign's possible ties to Russian meddling into the 2016 elections—seemed like an obviously "bad idea":
— RG (@RGreagor) March 20, 2017
@RGreagor wasn't alone in thinking the president's behavior absurd:
Hilarious watching Russia Intel Hearing knowing Trump's glued to a tv squeaking with indignation and tweeting frantically. So presidential. pic.twitter.com/dyHkpelxtC
— Kyrielle (@TheZenPuppy) March 20, 2017
Trump is live-tweeting so he's forcing government officials to admit he's lying in real time and holy shita href="https://t.co/EMO9CC0RSn">https://t.co/EMO9CC0RSn</a>
— Ben Kuchera (@BenKuchera) March 20, 2017