Rogue Twitter employee on last day of job deactivated Trump's personal account, company says
President Donald Trump boasted Friday of his social media influence after his personal Twitter account was briefly deactivated by a departing company employee, raising serious questions about the security of tweets the president wields to set major policy agendas, connect with his voter base and lash out at his adversaries.
The deactivation Thursday sparked deep and troubling questions about who has access to the president's personal account, @realDonaldTrump, and the power that access holds. The deactivation also came at a time when the social network is under scrutiny for the role it played in spreading Russian propaganda during the 2016 presidential election.
Trump's account disappeared at around 7 p.m. ET Thursday, when visitors to the page were met with the message, "Sorry, that page doesn't exist!" For about an hour, even after the account returned, the Twittersphere joked about the short-lived window of history without @realDonaldTrump.
Then, at 8:05 p.m., at the same time Trump was tweeting about tax reform, the company posted a statement saying the president's "account was inadvertently deactivated due to human error by a Twitter employee."
"The account was down for 11 minutes, and has since been restored," Twitter's statement read. "We are continuing to investigate and are taking steps to prevent this from happening again."
But two hours later, the company admitted that the deactivation wasn't an accident at all: A preliminary investigation revealed that the account was taken offline "by a Twitter customer support employee who did this on the employee's last day."
Twitter said it was conducting a full internal review.
Early Friday, Trump blamed a "rogue employee" for pulling the plug.
"My Twitter account was taken down for 11 minutes by a rogue employee," he wrote. "I guess the word must finally be getting out-and having an impact."
The company has suspended other high-profile accounts in the past for violating its terms and conditions. But there has not been a case where an employee has acted alone to take down the account of a well-known person, seemingly on their own.
A spokeswoman from Twitter said no new information about the investigation would be released Thursday night. It was still unclear who the employee was, how that employee got access to the president's account and whether any security breaches led to the subsequent deactivation.
Trump tweeted five times Thursday night after his account was reactivated but never mentioned the outage.
The president was aware of the issue, and the White House was in touch with Twitter, said an official who spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss the matter.
"A lot" of employees at Twitter can suspend a user's account, a former employee of the company told BuzzFeed. But far fewer - only hundreds - have the power to deactivate one. There was some discussion at the company about special protections on verified or high-profile accounts, but that extra measures were "never implemented," the unnamed source said.
Trump has used the account since March 2009. He has tweeted more than 36,000 times and has 41.7 million followers.
On Twitter, some people made light of the deactivation, while others wondered about the potential consequences of employees who have access to an important megaphone used by the president of the United States.
Ted Lieu tweeted: "Dear Twitter employee who shut down Trump's Twitter: You made America feel better for 11 minutes. DM me & I will buy you a Pizza Hut pizza."
Blake Hounshell tweeted: "Seriously, what if this person had tweeted about a fictional nuclear strike on North Korea?"
The president's use of the social media platform is no trivial matter.
The National Archives has advised the Trump administration to preserve all tweets as presidential records, and a professor at the U.S. Naval War College is worried U.S. enemies could be using Trump's tweets to build a psychological profile of the president.
Recent @realDonaldTrump tweets about North Korea heightened tensions between the two countries, with Trump threatening that "they won't be around much longer!" and that "only one thing will work!" In the past, officials in Pyongyang have responded to Trump's tweets as declarations of war.
In September, Twitter defended its decision not to remove a controversial Trump tweet that some interpreted as a threat directed toward North Korea.
Twitter's rules prohibit violent threats, some users pointed out, arguing that the Trump tweet fell into that category.
Twitter said it would not remove the tweet or suspend Trump's account, explaining that the company takes a number of factors into account when faced with controversial user-generated content, including its "newsworthiness" and whether it has "public interest."
Twitter added that it stands by its commitment to "keeping people informed about what's happening in the world."
It was Twitter's clearest ever explanation for its stance toward Trump, despite repeated calls from some users that the president's account be banned.
Earlier this year, Kal Penn, the actor and former aide to Barack Obama, urged Twitter to take stronger measures after Trump warned North Korea that the U.S. military was "locked and loaded." On another occasion, Trump tweeted a video of himself beating somebody up outside of a wrestling ring, with the victim's face obscured by CNN's logo - giving the impression that Trump was physically assaulting the news network.
In the past, the company has explained that it "provides a platform for people to engage with and discuss issues of importance, and facilitates a more open exchange of information. We continue to see more leaders, around the world, take to Twitter to communicate with their constituents and engage in a conversation."
Trump recognizes the power of the social platform.
"Let me tell you about Twitter," he said in an interview with Tucker Carlson in March. "I think maybe I wouldn't be here if it wasn't for Twitter."
A tool once used by a campaigning candidate to disparage his opponents and rally his supporters is now Trump's favorite online means of promoting his presidential agenda.
"Twitter is a wonderful thing for me because I can get the word out," he told Carlson.
On the campaign trail, Trump once described his rapidly growing Twitter following not only as a means to get the truth out, but also as a way to get even with his enemies.
"Someone said I'm the Ernest Hemingway of 140 characters," he told a crowd in South Carolina, air-typing into a pretend phone. "If someone says something badly about you: Bing, bing, bing! I say something really bad."
The deactivation comes at a time when Twitter and other technology companies are under greater scrutiny for the way they can be abused.
Earlier this week, lawyers from Twitter, Facebook and Google testified on Capitol Hill as part of the investigation into Russia's influence of the 2016 presidential election. In public statements, Twitter acknowledged that it had identified 2,752 accounts controlled by Russian operatives, as well as more than 36,000 bots that issued 1.4 million tweets during the election.
On Thursday, Trump used his account to congratulate the Houston Astros for winning the World Series, call on Congress to "TERMINATE" the diversity visa lottery and announce the nomination of Jerome Powell as the next chair of the Federal Reserve.
Trump was back tweeting at 8:05 p.m., praising the day's "Great Tax Cut rollout" before taking aim at some of his adversaries.
Trump tweeted: "Donna Brazile just stated the DNC RIGGED the system to illegally steal the Primary from Bernie Sanders. Bought and paid for by Crooked H....
"....This is real collusion and dishonesty. Major violation of Campaign Finance Laws and Money Laundering - where is our Justice Department?
"The @TuckerCarlson opening statement about our once cherished and great FBI was so sad to watch. James Comey's leadership was a disaster"
Though the president did not mention his sudden deactivation, Dan Scavino, the White House director of social media, alluded to the heightened interest in Trump's tweets.
Dan Scavino Jr. tweeted: "With Trump's Twitter trending, I thought I would take this opportunity to share his handle, should you not be following.
Authors Information: Rachel Siegel graduated from Yale and is a reporting intern on the local politics team. Hayley Tsukayama covers consumer technology for The Washington Post. Brian Fung covers technology for The Washington Post, focusing on telecommunications, Internet access and the shifting media economy.