Abu Dhabi, UAEFriday 20 September 2019

As Haley closes Twitter account, are Trump and team headed for social media standoff?

Official rules mean officials shouldn’t use personal accounts or direct government resources to their own twitter, but that isn’t stopping many in the administration

Screengrab of Nikki Haley's Twitter account.
Screengrab of Nikki Haley's Twitter account.

Mixing your personal and professional life on social media can be a hazardous business. Countless people have found themselves dismissed from their jobs after conducting themselves inappropriately online, and this, in turn, has prompted the widespread use of nervous disclaimers on social media profiles —“My opinions do not reflect that of my employer”.

The most recent and high profile example, however, involves the government of the United States.

In order to comply with the rules laid down by the State Department, the former US ambassador to the United Nations, Nikki Haley, has just announced the closure of her Twitter account, disconnecting her from her 1.7 million followers.

"I have had to clear my personal Twitter account that I have had for years,” she grumbled on her new account. “The followers, the history, the pictures, and all other content.” This outcome was a consequence of Haley using her personal Twitter account for government business – but as the world knows only too well, no one uses their personal Twitter account for government business quite as enthusiastically as Donald Trump. Might the president have wandered into another ethical minefield?

An illustration shows a woman looking at the Twitter page of US President Donald Trump reading "Sanctions Are Coming November 5" at an office in Washington, DC on November 2, 2018. - The United States will add 700 individuals and entities to its Iran blacklist and pressure the global SWIFT banking network to cut off Tehran when expanded sanctions are put in place next week, US officials said November 2, 2018. The sanctions come six months after President Donald Trump withdrew from the 2015 nuclear deal struck between world powers and Iran. (Photo by STF / AFP)
An illustration shows a woman looking at the Twitter page of US President Donald Trump reading "Sanctions Are Coming November 5" at an office in Washington, DC. AFP

The social media policy Ms Haley is complying with dates from June 2013. It reads, in part: “Social media accounts created for communicating officially are to be considered official outlets and must remain in the control of the [State Department]... Personnel should be aware that repurposing an existing personal social media account as an official account may… result in the individual's loss of the account upon his/her departure.” Former State Department official Graham Lampa, one of the architects of the policy, used Twitter to explain the reasoning behind it. “Some senior officials and spokespeople,” he wrote, “especially political appointee ambassadors, were directing official resources to be used to build up the followings of their personal social media accounts. It’s an ethics issue. Public officials are not supposed to benefit privately from their public office beyond the salary they draw.”

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Ms Haley is by no means the only US official to have flouted the rules laid out in the State Department’s Foreign Affairs Manual. A 2017 investigation by BuzzFeed News revealed that the US Ambassadors to New Zealand and the Vatican were also using their personal Twitter accounts as official mouthpieces, and that Ivo Daalder, a former US ambassador to NATO appointed by President Obama, had battled to keep his personal Twitter account after leaving the post despite an official view that it should be surrendered to the government.

Mr Trump’s unrestrained use of his personal Twitter account without official censure may strengthen the cases of other officials who decide not to comply with the rules in future. The “think before you post” guidelines issued to federal employees by the US Office of Government Ethics, covering everything from the time spent using social media at work to the disclosure of non-public information, have often been bent or broken by the president. Mr Trump has described himself as a politician who is ahead of the times. “My use of social media is not Presidential,” he tweeted in July 2017, “it’s MODERN DAY PRESIDENTIAL”. But legal experts have regularly pointed out various ethical problems raised by his vigorous social media presence.

Mr Trump’s former habit of blocking people on Twitter who disagreed with his views was ruled by a federal judge back in May to violate rights to free speech under the First Amendment. Lawyer George Conway, husband of Mr Trump’s senior Counsellor Kellyanne Conway, has described some of his recent tweets as potentially "interfering with the fair administration of justice”, while his deletion of various tweets — including his very first misspelled tweet as US President — may be in contravention of the Presidential Records Act. While Mr Trump’s account has been active since 2009, long before his political campaigning began, his tweets are now considered, according to former White House press secretary Sean Spicer, “official statements by the President of the United States". Personal and professional, however, make for uneasy bedfellows.

NEW YORK, NY - SEPTEMBER 24: United States Ambassador to the United Nations Nikki Haley attends a media briefing during the United Nations General Assembly on September 24, 2018 in New York City. (Photo by Stephanie Keith/Getty Images)
Former United States ambassador to the United Nations Nikki Haley. Getty

Last July’s resignation of Walter Shaub, head of the Office of Government Ethics, after a series of clashes with Mr Trump was a clear indication of the president’s disdain for regulations. It’s highly unlikely that he’d give up his @realdonaldtrump account after leaving office, not least because the State Department has already given way at least once on the issue.

But that begs the question, why Ms Haley surrendered her huge public platform without more of a fight?

Mr Lampa believes that it’s a precursor to her challenging Mr Trump for the Republican nomination for President in 2020. “What’s more valuable to @NikkiHaley than her Twitter following?” he wrote. “Being able to say that she followed ethics rules while ambassador, which serves to differentiate her within an ethically-odious administration.”

Twitter may have won Mr Trump the last election, but might it lose him the next?

Updated: January 3, 2019 06:01 PM

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