President Donald Trump’s Twitter posts not only have been a constant source of news material for the media, but they could pose a legal problem for the president and anyone involved in a probe or investigation, legal analysts are saying. In fact, the president’s Twitter account could be a “gold mine” of information and intent. And in his seeming unchecked and unrestrained posting on such a public forum, President Trump could do those being investigated far more harm than good, experts say.
To date, Donald Trump — businessman, private individual, and president — has amassed more than 35,000 posts since 2009 on his Twitter account @realdonaldtrump. Each one is time-stamped. According to Politico‘s Darren Samuelsohn, the tweets give “investigators a detailed timeline of Trump’s thoughts and opinions – including where they might differ from official accounts – and can also be used to establish intent, which can be critical in a criminal investigation.”
And although the president is not currently a target of any FBI or congressional probes personally, his Twitter posts could cause problems for anyone under investigation. The tweets establish not only a timeline to put the posts in proper historical context, they also can be used to ascribe intent and shed light on what Trump was thinking at the time. This could be problematic for those under investigation (and those that could come under investigation) while the FBI and Congress conduct investigations into whether or not any of Trump’s advisers may have had inappropriate connections with Russia or somehow colluded with the Russians when they allegedly attempted to influence the 2016 presidential election.
“They’re a gold mine,” said Peter Zeidenberg, a partner at Arent Fox who served on the Justice Department’s special prosecution team during the Valerie Plame Wilson investigation while George W. Bush was president. “They help paint a picture.”
Michael Forde, a trial lawyer who represents Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel, agrees.
“I think an investigator would be curious as to whether the president, who necessarily exists in a very unique bubble, was using his tweets and other public statements to communicate with, coordinate with, or direct witnesses.”
Former Watergate prosecutor Richard Ben-Veniste notes that Twitter posts are just another form of public discourse. “There isn’t any reason why a tweet wouldn’t be treated like any other public statement,” he says. “As long as it is properly attributed to the author and verified as such it would constitute a statement.”
“They’re no different from emails or anything else,” Forde corroborates.
In fact, besides being used by the media and late night talk show hosts, the tweets of Donald Trump have been used in legal settings. In a lawsuit against his now defunct Trump University, Trump’s Twitter posts were ruled admissible as evidence. And federal judges looking into the constitutionality of the executive orders that banned certain immigrants cited some of Trump’s tweets in their decisions.
And some of his posts have prompted legal experts, political adversaries, and critics to question whether the president can be legally held accountable for intimidation tactics, such as when he took to Twitter to inform just-fired FBI director James Comey that he had “better hope that there are no tapes.”
James Comey better hope that there are no "tapes" of our conversations before he starts leaking to the press!
— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) May 12, 2017
Given his other public statements on the Comey firing, like admitting to NBC News’ Lester Holt that he took the Russia election tampering investigation into consideration in his decision to oust Comey, the Trump Twitter account could be problematic for those defending the president.
“You could use those tweets to show the president was angry and frustrated by this Russia investigation, that he was furious that it was ongoing, that he didn’t think it was legitimate, that he therefore fired the FBI director to thwart it,” Zeidenberg says. “You could support that whole theory almost entirely on tweets and statements of Trump.”
There have been reports that several Trump advisers, political and legal, have attempted to persuade President Trump to use his Twitter account more sparingly or more diplomatically. So far, the efforts seem to be of no avail, as witness his recent Twitter war with former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton (per Recode).
Given his history of taking to Twitter in opinionated and reactionary fashion, the Donald Trump Twitter “gold mine” will not be closing down operations anytime soon.
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