Throughout his presidential campaign and into his young presidency, President Donald Trump has been very effective at using social media, and particularly Twitter, to shape the news cycle and the prevailing narrative. But on Monday, as he or someone with access to the official @POTUS twitter handle appeared to live-Tweet a Congressional hearing on Russian meddling in the 2016 presidential election, the strategy backfired.
The House Intelligence Committee was hearing testimony from Federal Bureau of Investigation Director James Comey and National Security Agency Director Admiral Mike Rogers on allegations that Russia-backed hackers released information stolen from email accounts associated with Democratic candidate Hillary Clinton had been selectively released information to harm her campaign.
In a public report in January, the FBI, NSA and the other agencies that make up the Intelligence Community released their unanimous finding that Russia did interfere in the election to harm Clinton and help Trump. However, they explicitly noted in the report that they were making no assertions about the effort’s effectiveness, and said they hadn’t even investigated the impact of the Russian hacking on the election results in the first place.
At the time, Trump surrogates like White House Chief of Staff Reince Priebus and White House Counselor Kellyanne Conway had no compunction about going on the Sunday talk shows and claiming the exact opposite -- that the intelligence agencies had said Russian interference had no impact on the election result.
At the time, there was no significant pushback in real time, and those false claims went largely unchallenged. But that changed when the White House tried it again on Monday. Early in the hearing, Comey again said that the intelligence agencies’ investigation had made no determination at all about the effect of the Russians’ activities on the outcome of the election.
As the hearing was ongoing, the @POTUS account tweeted the following:
The NSA and FBI tell Congress that Russia did not influence electoral process. pic.twitter.com/d9HqkxYBt5— President Trump (@POTUS) March 20, 2017
The link in the tweet leads to a clip of Intelligence Committee Chairman Devin Nunes asking Admiral Rogers if Russia had been able to change actual vote tallies in a number of swing states in November -- something none of the intelligence agencies in the US has ever suggested. But the broader implication of the tweet was clear: Trump was asserting that the intelligence community had determined that the Russian hacking had no impact on the election’s outcome.
A staff member must have called the tweet to the attention of committee member Jim Himes of Connecticut because late in the hearing he raised it directly with Comey and Rogers.
“Gentlemen in my original questions to you I asked you whether the intelligence community had undertaken any sort of study to determine whether Russian interference had had any influence on the electoral process and I think you told me the answer was no.”
“Correct,” Rogers said. “We said the U.S. Intelligence community does not do analysis or reporting on the U.S. Political process or U.S. Public opinion. That is not our policy.”
“Okay,” said Himes. “Thanks to the modern technology that's in front of me right here, I've got a tweet from the president an hour ago saying the NSA and FBI tell Congress that Russia did not influence the electoral process. That's not quite accurate, that tweet?”
Clearly surprised at being asked to correct the President of the United States in real time, Comey hesitated. Himes read the tweet back, and the FBI director said, “Let me tell you what we understand the state of what we've said is. We've offered no opinion, have no view, have no information on potential impact because it's never something we looked at.”
“So it's not too far of a logical leap to conclude that the assertion that you have told the congress that there was no influence on the electoral process is not quite right?” Himes pressed.
“Right,” said Comey. “It certainly wasn't our intention to say that today. We don't have any information on that subject. That's not something that was looked at.”
People frustrated by a White House that often seems to regard the truth as a matter of opinion might rightly have seen immediate pushback from senior intelligence officials as a victory on Monday. But in the end, it might have been a Pyrrhic one. Trump’s tweet, wrong though it was, had tens of thousands of likes, comments and retweets by Monday afternoon. By the time Comey rubbished it, in the fifth hour of the hearing, the live broadcast of the event had been relegated to C-Span 3.