Countless people early Wednesday pointed at President Donald Trump’s Twitter account and guffawed over “ covfefe.” But I, being Russian, couldn’t help but fear the worst. Was the leader of the free world OK?
Clearly, I was overreacting, but that’s precisely the problem. This time, a typo set off a jokefest. Next time, it could set off something deadly serious.
It’s not really a remote possibility that Trump’s account could be hijacked. In 2014, Russian Prime Minister Dmitri Medvedev briefly lost control of his account. For 44 minutes, the hacker posted on his behalf: “I resign. I’m ashamed of the government’s actions. I’m sorry. We appear to be going back to the ‘80s. That’s sad. If that’s the goal of my colleagues in the Kremlin, it will soon be achieved.”
Even that was relatively harmless. But what if realDonaldTrump tweeted something that came out of Ronald Reagan’s mouth in 1984?
“My fellow Americans, I am pleased to tell you that I have signed legislation to outlaw Russia forever. We begin bombing in five minutes.”
Reagan’s infamous “nuclear joke,” which rocked world leaders, was 136 characters long, just right for a tweet. No military confrontation ensued because it was immediately obvious Reagan didn’t mean it: He was merely unaware of a live microphone. I shudder to think what procedures would be launched if a similar Trump tweet were left out there for hours.
It’s equally scary to imagine Trump doing what his press secretary, Sean Spicer, did in January — accidentally tweeting out what could have been access codes or passwords. If hackers are trying to get into that iPhone — which Trump also wants to use for calls with foreign leaders, so hacker interest is assured — they may be waiting for just such a slip to break in.
The communications company Burson Marsteller’s most recent Twiplomacy Study, about how world leaders use Twitter and other social networks, lists 793 Twitter accounts that belong to presidents, ministers, political and religious leaders and official bodies. In just 53 of them, personal tweets from leaders appear from time to time.
With most of them, however, it’s not easy to tell a personal tweet from one posted by staff: These entries are carefully insipid. There are exceptions, like Rwandan President Paul Kagame and Norwegian Prime Minister Erna Solberg, who write substantive replies to their followers’ tweets, or former Congolese Prime Minister Augustin Matata Ponyo Mapon, who would post live commentary on the national soccer team’s games. But these exceptions don’t normally occur in countries as powerful and consequential as the U.S.
It is often said that Trump’s Twitter account allows him to circumvent the media and take his message directly to his supporters. But he’s also speaking to the world on behalf of the No. 1 global superpower. As Trump’s National Security Adviser H.R. McMaster and National Economic Council Director Gary Cohn wrote in a Wall Street Journal op-ed on Wednesday, it brings to the world “unmatched military, political, economic, cultural and moral strength.”
If God had a Twitter account, I fully expect that He might constantly tweet gibberish, mix languages, make private jokes. Preachers would work hard to interpret the tweets to their flock. That doesn’t quite work with the U.S. president, though. What are we to think when a tweet by the commander-in-chief suddenly trails off incoherently? Is he alive, is he in command of his senses as well as that military strength? Has he been hacked? Or did he merely get distracted mid-tweet and drop the phone in his pocket without blocking it? (Have I figured out the true meaning of “covfefe,” Mr. President?)
I’m not saying Trump should follow the example of German Chancellor Angela Merkel, the only G-7 leader without a Twitter account (her spokesman has one and uses it well). It would be a shame to lose his unique voice and the window into his mind at 3 a.m. Trump’s Twitter account is a powerful asset, even if about half of his followers may be fake.
Even Republicans argue that Trump needs to professionalize his White House. Why not start with upgrading his social media megaphone to include common-sense security protections? It wouldn’t be too difficult a coding assignment to write an interface for the president, to be used on a secure device, that sends his tweets to a second pair of eyes before they go out.
Such a process would prevent pocket tweets, embarrassing spelling and grammar errors and hacker pranks. It might even prevent a nuclear war.