By now, we’ve lived through this shadow between tweet and action many, many times. On July 26, 2017, for example, the president sent out a string of tweets informing the world to “please be advised” that “the United States government will no longer accept or allow … [t]ransgender individuals to serve in any capacity in the U.S. military.” At the time, Jeannie Suk Gerson wrote that, “A tweet by a President is neither a law nor an executive order.” But the tweet had enough heft on its own to shape the lives of transgender servicemembers or would-be recruits in the month between when the president hit “send” on Twitter and when the White House issued a memorandum to the Defense Department. One of the successful suits against the first iteration of the ban was actually filed weeks before the policy was formally delivered to the Pentagon, in the interim period after the tweet.
Likewise, one of the particular strangenesses of the Sunday tweet was its oddly formal language. “I hereby demand” seemed fit for a presidential proclamation, elevating Trump’s direct command to a level above his many prior hints that he would like the Justice Department to prosecute his political enemies. Perhaps it really was the harbinger of a genuine crisis. But as Twitter sleuths quickly pointed out, Trump used exactly the same formulation in March 2017 to “hereby demand” an investigation of Nancy Pelosi—which, we now know, resulted in nothing at all. In that case, the uncertain period never had a clear endpoint but instead trailed off into insignificance.