Analysis

The Year of Tweeting Dangerously: From Hillary's Jewish Star to the CNN Wrestling Smack-down

Trump’s supply of alt-right-sourced red meat to his base won’t end as long as Dan Scavino, the president’s White House social media guru, is around

White House Social Media Director Dan Scavino (R) beside two of Trump's notorious tweets.
Jim Bourg / Reuters

A year – and the presidency – hasn’t made a lot of difference in the online world of Donald Trump.

During last year's July 4 weekend, the political world was buzzing over its barbecues and fireworks in shock, after Republican presidential nominee Donald Trump tweeted an image that crossed a line into anti-Semitism.

The infamous image showed Hillary Clinton on a background of dollar bills, with a six-pointed-star next to her containing the words “Most Corrupt Candidate Ever!” The image’s blatant wink to white-supremacist circles was amplified after it was revealed that the collage of anti-Semitic tropes had been pulled from the depths of the alt-right internet – a bulletin board called 8Chan, an online water cooler for the sort of people who subscribe to the alt-right's brand of racism, anti-Semitism and plain old-fashioned populism.

Exactly a year later, the conversation over the July 4th weekend is again dominated by an unsavory Trump tweet that has been traced to the online cesspools of the alt-right. Trump’s now-famous CNN wrestling video – in which the president leaps on and pummels a man with the CNN logo superimposed on his head – was found to have emerged from a source similar to that of the Hillary-star post: a pro-Trump Reddit enclave called The Donald, and specifically a user called HanAssholeSolo, whose previous racist posts have been unearthed and published.

One-time caddie

Both tweets bear the now-unmistakable stamp of Dan Scavino, 41, a member of the president's die-hard circle of supporters, who famously worked his way up from being Trump’s golf caddie when he was still a teenager, to the position of general manager of Trump’s Westchester golf club.

Scavino was part of Trump’s presidential campaign since it began in 2015; he was named its social media manager in February of 2016, and is now a member of the president’s inner circle.

Expert Trump watchers identified Scavino’s fingerprints on the incendiary CNN tweet almost immediately – including the journalist who is believed to know him best.

It was the Hillary tweet that first brought Scavino into the spotlight. At the time, the young Trump campaign aide took responsibility for it, but emphatically denied that it was anti-Semitic or sourced from a racist site. He also claimed disingenuously that he had believed the shape next to Clinton was that of a “sheriff’s star” on a badge – not a Star of David – despite the fact that he found that he had to quickly change the star into a circle.

“For the MSM (mainstream media) to suggest that I am anti-Semite is awful,” Scavino tweeted defensively. “I proudly celebrate holidays with my wife’s amazing Jewish family for the past 16 years.”

Trump himself charged that, “these false attacks by Hillary Clinton trying to link the Star of David with a basic star, often used by sheriffs who deal with criminals and criminal behavior, showing an inscription that says ‘Crooked Hillary is the most corrupt candidate ever’ with anti-Semitism is ridiculous.”

Disturbing corners

It wasn’t the first time that the Scavino-spearheaded social media operation during the presidential campaign seemed to be to be mining red meat to feed Trump’s core base of supporters in disturbing corners of the internet. In January and February, Trump twice retweeted a viciously racist user of the social media platform with the handle @WhiteGenocideTM, who listed his location as “Jewmerica.”

In December 2016, television anchorwoman Megyn Kelly pointed the finger at Scavino for actively encouraging Trump’s online fan base to harass and abuse her. Kelly said at the time that there is a “far corner of the internet that really enjoys nastiness and threats and unfortunately there is a man who works for Donald Trump whose job it is to stir these people up and that man needs to stop doing that. His name is Dan Scavino.”

As a result, the journalist said, she and her children had to be accompanied by armed guards after receiving death threats in the wake of Scavino’s tweets targeting her.

At the time, Scavino’s behavior might have been explained away as the act of a zealous scrappy aide to an underdog candidate fighting for the presidency with a need to “fire up the base” and get them to the polls.

But now, a year later, he holds the lofty titles of assistant to the president of the United States, as well as White House director of social media.

But, as with Donald Trump, the weight of the job – and the rules that go with it – don’t seem to have significantly affected Scavino’s style or online behavior. Like his boss, Scavino is in perpetual combative campaign mode.

Offensive, not illegal

In May, this caught up with the social media director when he was officially reprimanded for violating the Hatch Act, which forbids government workers to use their positions to try to influence an election. Scavino had done so in a tweet on his personal account that rallied Republican voters to defeat a candidate he believed to be working against Trump’s interests.

Scavino scoffed initially at criticism that his behavior was unethical, saying the charges came from Obama supporters and other Trump enemies. But he was officially warned by the government’s office of special counsel that if he "engages in prohibited political activity,” it would be viewed as “a willful and knowing violation of the law, which could result in further action.” Punishment for violating the Hatch Act can be firing or a temporary ban from government employment.

No such legal consequences exist, however, for online behavior that merely offends, winks to the alt-right, appears to endorse physical violence, as in the case of the CNN tweet, or trolls the mayor of London after a major terror attack.

In an interview with CNN during the campaign last year, Scavino claimed that the GOP candidate “never attacked” anyone unprovoked, and “it was always the opposing campaign throwing punches at Donald Trump ... If you’re going to throw punches at Donald Trump be prepared.”

The problematic sourcing of Trump’s tweets, said Scavino, had been “blown out of proportion.” Trump, he added defensively, was too busy to check the history of users he retweeted.

In a declaration of unconditional loyalty, when asked if there was anything Trump could possibly say or do that would cause Scavino to jump ship, he said “No.”

When Trump is attacked, the aide admitted, “It fires me up, it pisses me off” – and, in true Trump style, compels him to hit back.

Since attacks on the president are unlikely to end anytime soon, it would be foolish to think that the tone of his tweets will become moderate anytime soon. The opposite is probably true: As Trump’s approval ratings remain low, and pressure increases on the White House as a result of the Russia investigations and the stalled GOP legislative agenda, the need to shore up Trump’s base is more important than ever.

Anyone with doubts that July 4, 2018 will be any different than the past two years’ holidays should pay attention to Scavino's own Twitter feed. He believes firmly that the take-no-prisoners, politically incorrect tweeting that delivered Donald Trump to the White House is going to keep him there.