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What Trump doesn't get about his new executive order: it'd backfire

Trump seems oblivious to the fact that his new executive order, if it were implemented, would almost certainly backfire on him personally.
Image:The twitter page of President Donald Trump is displayed on a mobile phone
The twitter page of President Donald Trump is displayed on a mobile phone on May 29, 2020.Olivier Morin / AFP - Getty Images

As online disputes go, this week's hullabaloo on Twitter started in a rather low-key way. Donald Trump published another tweet that lied about voting rights, as he's done many times before. This week, however, Twitter alerted users to the fact that the president's claims were misleading, and the social-media company referred the public to accurate information.

Twitter didn't censor, edit, or delete the tweet; it simply brought additional accurate information to users' attention, so as to prevent public confusion about an important topic Trump is eager to lie about.

From the president's perspective, of course, this was intolerable. Deceiving people with tweets is a key pillar of his political persona, and Trump immediately saw Twitter's measured response as an attack that could severely undermine his misinformation efforts.

And so, the president did what authoritarians often do: Trump took steps to abuse his power and target methods of communication.

In a feud with Twitter, President Donald Trump signed an executive order Thursday asking federal regulators to revisit the 1996 law that protects websites from liability for what their users post.

With Attorney General Bill Barr standing alongside him in the Oval Office, the president added, "If Twitter were not honorable ... I think just shut it down, as far as I'm concerned." Asked how he'd go about doing such a thing, Trump conceded he didn't know.

Authoritarians hoping to intimidate media companies tend not to get bogged down in petty details, such as whether or not they have the legal authority to shut down private businesses they don't like.

In November 2014, Trump published a tweet that began, "Obama's attack on the internet is another top down power grab." I'm going to assume he no longer remembers this.

It's tempting to ignore the president's executive order altogether. For one thing, it's barely an executive order at all: Trump directed federal officials to take a look the Communications Decency Act -- specifically, Section 230 -- passed by Congress in 1996 to establish the existing legal landscape for online media. But he didn't need an executive order to do that; the president could've just picked up the phone and ordered agencies to do as he requested.

For another, the whole endeavor is a legal mess. Trump can't alter federal law with an executive order, and NBC News' Pete Williams published a good report explaining that the president's effort is badly at odds with how the law works.

With this in mind, yesterday's display in the Oval Office was more of a theatrical tantrum than the launch of a serious policy initiative. A CNN report added yesterday that the White House "did not consult the Federal Communications Commission" on the order, which was "hastily conceived at the last minute."

So why bother focusing attention on this misguided effort? Trump's order probably won't amount to much, but it's worth considering for a few reasons.

First, it's amazing that the president seems oblivious to the fact that his approach, if it were implemented, would almost certainly backfire on him. A New York Times report explained that under existing law, social-media giants are not liable for false and defamatory content published by others. If that shield were to disappear, as Trump's apparently wants, the companies would "presumably would have to be more aggressive about policing messages that press the boundaries -- like the president's."

Second, it's striking that Trump, even now, hasn't the foggiest idea what the First Amendment's protections on free speech actually mean.

And third, while I'm not overly concerned with the idea that the president will successfully undermine the nation's media and communications channels, it matters that Trump is so eager to try. Indeed, yesterday's executive order comes from the same president who's said he considers it "disgusting" that the American press "is able to write whatever it wants to write." He's suggested he might target the broadcasting licenses of outlets that run stories he doesn’t like.

The Republican has not been shy about his affinity for authoritarians and their approach to governing, and every step the president takes in their direction -- including brazenly trying to retaliate against media companies that dare to challenge his falsehoods -- is cause for unease and vigilance.