Imagine this scenario: The date is Jan. 20, 2021. Inauguration Day. After winning the 2020 Presidential election, Joe Biden is sworn in and officially becomes the 46th President of the United States. The world breathes a collective sigh of relief, and even though we’ll still face the challenge of ending a deadly, ongoing global pandemic, the state of our democracy at least seems to have been saved from the clutches of those who would tear it apart entirely.
Meanwhile, the outgoing 45th President of the United States is huddled in a bunker somewhere, or vacationing at Mar-a-Lago. Incensed by TV coverage of Biden’s inauguration, he flies into one of his classic Twitter tirades, the kind we’ve seen practically every day since the beginning of the election on Nov. 3. The now-former President reiterates the same tired, baseless, conspiracy laden theories of electoral fraud he’s been pushing, and links to any garbage site on the web that might stoke his ego.
And then Twitter suspends Donald Trump’s account. Furious, he lashes out even more as soon as the suspension ends. And then Twitter bans Donald Trump from its platform entirely.
This scenario is not only possible, but is looking entirely likely according to experts in media law. Twitter as a company currently seems to be establishing the exact precedent for how they’ll begin treating Trump the moment he becomes a private citizen once again, rather than the “leader of the free world.” The last 24 hours, in fact, have provided a textbook example of how the company could cut Trump off from his nearly 89 million Twitter followers in response to his constant abuse of the site’s rules and policies.
This process of Twitter deciding to stand up to Trump began in the days leading up to the election, as the platform was increasingly willing to fact-check the sitting President on absurd claims that were clearly intended to shake the faith of voters in our democratic institutions. The phrase “this claim is disputed by official sources” became a meme in and of itself for the fact that it so often appeared on Trump posts claiming (without evidence) that election fraud would be/had been widespread and substantial. Trump and his lawyers have of course never been able to prove any of their claims, leading to the Trump campaign’s biggest cases being dismissed with prejudice in federal courts.
Trump’s own Twitter account, though, has benefitted from the shield of its official status—although their posts can receive fact checking and warnings about deceptive information, Twitter will not outright suspend or ban those accounts of high-ranking elected officials. A Twitter spokesperson put it this way in a statement to Newsweek: “Twitter’s approach to world leaders, candidates, and public officials is based on the principle that people should be able to choose to see what their leaders are saying with clear context. This means that we may apply warnings and labels, and limit engagement to certain tweets. This policy framework applies to current world leaders and candidates for office, and not private citizens when they no longer hold these positions.”
Which is to say, once Trump is no longer the POTUS, his invulnerability to suspensions and bans will immediately expire. After Jan. 20, 2021, he’ll actually be made to answer for whatever he’s tweeting at any given time, and it seems doubtful that he’ll suddenly start reining in his embrace of dangerous misinformation and conspiracy theories.
Case in point: Yesterday’s incredibly embarrassing, deeply amusing drama with now-former Trump legal team member Sidney Powell. Everything that happened with Sidney Powell and Twitter yesterday provides a framework for exactly how the company is likely to treat Trump as he leaves office.
If you don’t know Sidney Powell, she’s an American attorney who before the 2020 election was best known for representing Trump crony General Michael Flynn. She’s also a proponent of QAnon conspiracy theories, likely recognizing that she can profit off deluded conspiracy theorists who will help raise her public profile and buy whatever book about the election she’ll no doubt publish in coming months. Weeks ago, Trump announced that Powell was part of his “elite strike force” team of lawyers making baseless election fraud claims, also including the likes of Rudy Giuliani and Jenna Ellis. In a now-deleted tweet, he makes her status as a member of the team quite clear. Keep in mind, this is less than 10 days ago.
Then came that two-hour press conference last week, in which Powell appeared alongside Giuliani and co. on a live mic, launching into a sprawling conspiracy theory on national TV that claimed voting machines in the election were tied to dead dictator Hugo Chavez, among other things. Immediately following that press conference, Powell also went on the offensive against Republican Georgia governor Brian Kemp, claiming he was corrupt and embroiled in some kind of anti-Trump conspiracy. QAnon believers, meanwhile, have been in such an uproar about Kemp and Georgia that some of them are claiming they’ll be boycotting the upcoming Senate run-off elections due to Kemp not overturning Georgia’s election results in favor of Trump.
Powell’s wild conspiracy mongering (and her attacks on the GOP in Georgia in particular) eventually proved too much even for Giuliani and Trump, which led to yesterday’s amusing announcement: The Trump team is distancing itself from Powell, claiming that she was never a member of the Trump legal team despite her presenting on behalf of that team at a national press conference only days earlier. According to the Washington Post, Trump himself disliked the way that FOX’s Tucker Carlson of all people was questioning the validity of Powell’s conspiracy mongering, which shows you how deep down the rabbit hole Powell really is.
In response to being thrown under the bus by the Trump team, Powell took to Twitter and assured her audience that she would still be bringing “biblical” lawsuits to bear against various entities involved in supposed election fraud, and she linked to the same sort of demonstrably false conspiracy theories she typically would.
In other words, if Powell can get suspended or eventually banned from Twitter for spreading misinformation, then a post-Presidential Trump definitely can be suspended or banned as well. Speaking to Newsweek, Paul Bernal, associate professor in IT, media law and intellectual property at the UEA School of Law said the following: “I think he very regularly breaks Twitter’s terms and conditions and if they enforce them fairly he would get banned pretty quickly. I suspect Twitter will be a bit more proactive in labeling, deleting tweets, and eventually banning him. I think it depends on his state of mind when he leaves. He doesn’t seem to have much self-control, that could mean he gets banned very quickly.”
Twitter and Facebook have already confirmed that they will be handing the official POTUS accounts over to Joe Biden and his team on Inauguration Day, Jan. 20, 2021. That means Trump will have one avenue to express his bitterness and instability, in the form of his personal account. As Bernal suggests above, does Donald Trump seem like the kind of guy who has enough self-control to stop himself from being suspended or banned from Twitter? We think you know the answer to that question.
If Trump does see himself kicked off the platform in which he has 89 million followers, he will no doubt make that into a massive media story in and of itself, but at the same time the act would likely permanently strip him of a large portion of his social-media influence. He would likely explore new social-media avenues to communicate directly with his zealots, but an account on right-wing “free speech” platforms like Parler would likely never reach even a fraction of the massive audience he was speaking to on Twitter. It would be just one more step in the long-awaited minimization of Trump’s influence over conservative politics, and it honestly can’t come soon enough. The sooner the stain of Donald Trump begins to fade from the office of the Presidency, the better.