Can You Declare War With a Tweet? (and Other Questions of Our Time)

By Brian Karem

“The average Washington correspondent, I believe, is honest enough…what ails him mainly is that he is a man without sufficient force of character to resist the blandishments that surround him from the moment he sets foot in Washington…they end as tin-horn statesmen, full of dark secrets and unable to write the truth if they tried.”—H.L. Mencken, Prejudices: Sixth Series (1927)

Midway through the first press briefing in the White House in more than a week, White House Press Secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders admonished a reporter in the second row for naming the Los Angeles Times as a source for a question she found particularly detestable.

Sanders herself has urged viewing or reading questionable material when it suits the presidential narrative and on Monday, many of us in the pressroom know the disingenuous claim she had made—but we didn’t call her on it. There was too much to cover and, in a half hour, not much got done.

Sanders danced from tax reform to government officials using privates jets, the president’s tweets, Puerto Rico, North Korea, immigration, racism, the NFL, the Kurds and local political races, spending most of the time on the NFL controversy and little on anything else in a briefing that lasted approximately 30 minutes and, like most days, left us long on questions and short on real answers.

Volumes will be written in the future about President Donald Trump and his incessant, dehumanizing and bullying tweets. Trump has perfected the art of destroying a foe with the cudgel-like use of an insulting 140-character tweet and caring little about its divisive nature. While some see it as “winning” it remains remarkably different from the thought-provoking and inspirational utterings of previous presidents and politicians.

Take a walk in Arlington Cemetery. I defy anyone to take a walk there and not be overcome with emotion; inspiring and humbling. Visit the tomb of the unknown soldier and see how we honor those we can’t even identify who’ve made the ultimate sacrifice. Were our unknown fallen heroes atheists? Muslims? Gay? Liberal? Conservative? It matters not to those who honor them. We don’t even know. We only know they made the ultimate sacrifice for us the living. It is enough and it is what—since the founding of our republic—we’ve strived to be: United as one.

A short walk across Arlington National Cemetery from the tomb of the unknowns are memorials to John and Robert Kennedy. Inscribed on the wall behind Bobby’s simple grave is something he said upon the death of Martin Luther King Jr.:

What we need in the United States is not division, what we need in the United States is not hatred, what we need in the United Sates is not violence or lawlessness, but love and wisdom and compassion toward one another, and a feeling of justice toward those who still suffer within our country, whether they be white or they be black. Let us dedicate ourselves to what the Greeks wrote so many years ago: to tame the savageness of man and make gentle the life of this world. Let us dedicate ourselves to that and say a prayer for country and people.

At John’s gravesite is something he said during his inauguration:

Now the trumpet summons us again Not as a call to bear arms—though embattled we are But a call to bear the burden of a long twilight struggle A struggle against the common enemies of man Tyranny-Poverty-Disease and War itself.

This weekend, President Donald Trump tweeted these words of wisdom: “Just heard Foreign Minister of North Korea speak at U.N. If he echoes thoughts of Little Rocket Man, they won’t be around much longer!”

Or from the president’s recent rally in Alabama: “Wouldn’t you love to see one of these NFL Owners, when someone disrespects our flag to say, ‘Get that son of a bitch off the field right now, he’s fired, he’s fired.“

It is exceedingly difficult to find facts when the president conducts political debates and issues policy directives through Twitter.

NFL owners and players this week took a knee in defiance to our president. It was as moving to some as a walk through Arlington.

But the bottom line escapes many of us; logically, the president’s tweets inflame but do not inform. You cannot govern in 140-character tweets, but Trump has found he can inflame and arouse his base. What did Trump mean when he said North Korea would not be around much longer? North Korean officials thought he declared war—and said so. We know in the United States he didn’t declare war because tweets still haven’t replaced Congressional action. But what did the president mean? Will North Korea cease to be around much longer of their own leader’s action? Ours? Someone else’s? What?

The same goes with many of the tweets sent out about the NFL. The president said it wasn’t about racism. On the face of it, he is correct. It was about freedom of expression and freedom to protest racism. But what did the president mean? Does he acknowledge the very real, factual and legal right to dissent as protected by the First Amendment? Was he just responding with a private opinion? He is certainly entitled to it, no matter how divisive it is. But did he mean something else? Did he mean to say the First Amendment didn’t apply when the National Anthem is played? Is standing now required? What if I’m at home watching the game in my underwear? What if I’m sick? Asleep? Bored?

You see, logic shows we cannot discern what was actually meant, though everyone certainly thinks they do know. What is certain is that we are in the middle of a cultural war and President Trump is the driving force in it. You’re either with him or against him. There is no middle ground, according to those in the White House and those who oppose him.

It makes the challenges of sitting in the press room these days far more challenging than during Mencken’s time. We sit accused of being political activists at times for the right and the left as we merely try to get the facts. This week proves once again how exceedingly difficult it is to find those facts when the President of the United States conducts political debates and issues policy directives through his Twitter account.

Meanwhile, the people in Puerto Rico suffer and the Mueller investigation continues.