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President Trump retweets ignite strong reaction from media, politicians

Are a president’s retweets an endorsement? The week began with explanations from White House staff and more debate about his actions on Twitter

President Donald Trump looks at his phone during a roundtable with governors on the reopening of America’s small businesses, in the State Dining Room of the White House on Thursday, June 18, 2020, in Washington.
Alex Brandon, Associated Press

SALT LAKE CITY — Like many Americans, President Donald Trump starts his day scrolling through Twitter and then tweeting and retweeting posts he finds interesting. Attacks against a political opponent, endorsements for a Republican politician and sharing the favorable opinions of a political pundit are all part of the norm.

But in the past two mornings, retweets by the president were seen by politicians and some in the news media as endorsing hate speech and gun violence. Were those conclusions fair and should retweets by the commander in chief be seen as an endorsement?

Early Monday the president retweeted a video of a white man and a woman pointing firearms at protesters who appear to peacefully pass what is reportedly the couple’s St. Louis mansion enroute to the mayor’s residence. The man, armed with military-style rifle, points the muzzle at protesters, while the woman directs a small, silver pistol at the marchers. At 4:55 a.m. Monday, without any additional comment, Trump shared the video with his more than 82 million followers.

Twitter users responded to the video as a conflict between gun rights and freedom of speech. But in the context of Trump’s past activity on Twitter, the post was also interpreted as the president “appearing to endorse the couple’s stance,” as Bloomberg reported.

As recently as Friday, the president has referred to some protesters as “arsonist, anarchists, looters, and agitators.”

Later Monday morning he went on to repost a string of his own earlier tweets of police bulletins calling for help to identify alleged vandals in Washington, D.C.

While the common caveat of “retweets do not equal endorsements” is typically accepted in the digital world of Twitter, that hasn’t applied to the president, who has never conformed to the norm of public officials keeping their personal views to themselves, according to Johnathan Zittrain, a Harvard University law and computer science professor.

He wrote in The Atlantic last week that there is a historical norm that public employees and representatives of American institutions “separate their own opinions from their work, in the name of serving a larger professional cause, or representing and accommodating people who might disagree with them personally.”

“The president has long been expected — by the public, and by the Constitution — to act in America’s best interest, not his or her own narrow ones,” Zittrain wrote.

On Sunday, the president shared a video of Florida seniors exchanging political jabs for and against his policies that captured the attention of the internet. The video shows a caravan of golf carts decorated in Trump 2020 posters and American flags — driven by apparent retirees, some in pro-Trump T-shirts — parading through a group of similarly aged protesters at a Florida retirement community named The Villages. Nine seconds into the two minute video, a white man driving a golf cart with a Trump flag yells “white power” while shaking his fist. Protesters shouted back in profanity filled criticism.

“Thank you to the great people of The Villages,” the president wrote on Twitter, retweeting the video.

Republican Sen. Tim Scott, of South Carolina, told CNN’s Jake Tapper on Sunday morning that “there is no question (Trump) should have not have retweeted it and he should just take it down.” Tapper, who called the video offensive, asked if the Black senator was offended.

“The entire thing was offensive. Certainty the comment about the white power was offensive,” Scott said. The senator said he didn’t want to make the video a partisan issue, called the president’s retweet “indefensible” and reiterated that the video should be removed.

Trump later deleted the video and a White House spokesman said that the president “did not hear the one statement made on the video,” referring to the racist remark, The Associated Press reported.

The New York Times chief White House correspondent Peter Baker pointed out on Twitter that Trump had not condemned the racist remark nor “disavowed the sentiment.”