The Difference Between Government Policy and Twitter Statements

Government

(Official White House Photo by Shealah Craighead)

On Monday evening, Kimberly Adams, a reporter for the National Public Radio financial program Marketplace made a bold and completely incorrect statement. Discussing the president’s Twitter habits, she said, “these tweets are policy.” [Her emphasis, not mine.] Host Kai Ryssdal tried to clarify. “Let me back you up for a minute to that thing about ‘tweets are policy.,'” he said. “The White House has said that tweets are policy positions. Foreign countries see his tweets as policy positions.”

Ryssdal is closer to the truth, but still misinformed. Everyone repeat after me: tweets are not policy, and policy positions are not policy, either.

Let’s start by acknowledging the fact that no executive branch officer would take any official action based on a tweet, presidential or otherwise. Tweets or other public utterances may, as Ryssdal stated (without calling attention to the distinction) indicate policy positions, but the real, executable policy is a long way off.

To realize that tweets do not equal policy, one need look no further than the president’s stated desire to prevent transgender individuals from enlisting.

From Tweet to the sausage factory

On July 26, the president said, in a series of tweets, “After consultation with my Generals and military experts, please be advised that the United States Government will not accept or allow Transgender individuals to serve in any capacity in the U.S. Military. Our military must be focused on decisive and overwhelming victory and cannot be burdened with the tremendous medical costs and disruption that transgender in the military would entail. Thank you”

Predictably, this set of a firestorm of controversy. Secretary of Defense James Mattis had already announced a month prior that he was delaying implementation of the transgender policy developed by the Obama administration. But official reaction to the tweets was universal: the Department of Defense does not take action based on a tweet. The president must issue some sort of formal order.

That official order usually comes in the form of a policy guidance memorandum. In this case, the president issued such a memorandum on August 25. But receipt of formal policy guidance is when the “fun” begins. Because in the Federal bureaucracy, nothing happens overnight.

To go from policy guidance to policy, the guidance gets fed into the Federal “sausage factory” where different offices and agencies with competing interests get to weigh-in on exactly how to execute the president’s intent. This is repeated at several levels of authority, from “action officers” to directors to assistant secretaries or general officers, all the way to the top. At each step of the process, all the comments must been reviewed and adjudicated (no small task, I might add) before advancing to the next stage of review. Finally, the lawyers get to look everything over (the ones who weren’t already involved at lower levels).

Then and only then does the idea become a policy. And we still haven’t gotten to the part where a policy requires separate implementation instructions to tell the worker bees exactly how they’re supposed to make it all happen.

Nothing in Washington moves quickly, by design

For the “transgender ban,” Mattis issued interim guidance on September 14, in which he said the department expected to present a final plan to the president no later than February 21, 2018. Even without the issuance of a final policy, there are of course lawsuits. But that doesn’t change the fact that the policy is not yet written.

The belief that the president says “jump” and the Federal bureaucracy doesn’t even ask, “how high?” but immediately jumps and hopes it was high enough, is laughable. It wasn’t true before Trump took office and it’s not true now. Perhaps this is partly what the president meant by “drain the swamp,” but it’s a characteristic that separates business from the government. The president, for all the parallels, is not a CEO. Nothing in Washington moves quickly. That is by design. And while frustrating, it is largely a good thing.

Tomorrow, I’ll expand on the idea that tweets and other presidential behavior do not equal policy by examining the vast differences between the president’s public statements (or at least the way his public statements have been characterized) and the treatment of Russia in the new National Security Strategy.

Tom McCuin is a strategic communication consultant and retired Army Reserve Civil Affairs and Public Affairs officer whose career includes serving with the Malaysian Battle Group in Bosnia, two tours in Afghanistan, and three years in the Office of the Chief of Public Affairs in the Pentagon. When he’s not devouring political news, he enjoys sailboat racing and umpiring Little League games (except the ones his son plays in) in Alexandria, Va. Follow him on Twitter at @tommccuin

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