Democrats on Capitol Hill are sounding alarms this week over the possibility that Donald Trump could return to Twitter, warning that providing the former president with such a powerful megaphone could lead to violence on par with last year’s Capitol riot.
Trump was banned “permanently” from Twitter on Jan. 8, 2021, just two days after a mob of his supporters attacked the Capitol in a failed effort to overturn President Biden’s election win.
But with billionaire Elon Musk poised to take over the highly influential company, Trump may soon be back on the platform that helped propel his stunning political rise. Indeed, Musk on Tuesday said the ban was “flat-out stupid” and would be rescinded if and when his $44 billion takeover offer is finalized.
The would-be reversal has been hailed by Trump’s allies and other conservatives, who are characterizing it as a victory for free speech over the “woke” policies of the nation’s Big Tech companies.
Trump has said he has no intention of returning to Twitter, though it remains to be seen if the allure of the 80 million followers he had amassed is enough to persuade him. But the prospect of Trump’s return to the platform is stirring new fears from Democrats, many of whom were in the Capitol during the riot and fear another violent episode.
Why the concern?
“Because he started an insurrection, the f—— idiot,” said Rep. Juan Vargas (D-Calif.). “And that’s my fear — that he’d start violence again.”
Vargas is hardly alone.
Rep. Adriano Espaillat (D-N.Y.) stressed the importance of protecting free speech, but noted that even the First Amendment is not absolute. Because of Trump’s history using Twitter “to promote disinformation, lies, [and] ignite a very aggressive behavior from the general population,” he suggested the 45th president should remain barred from the platform.
“It’s a tool that is sort of like the backbone of democracy, but you can’t yell fire in a crowded theater,” Espaillat said. “To some degree, [Trump] has been irresponsible with it and dangerous with it. So for him to have access again to that is troubling, because he already has a pattern of behavior that has put democracy in danger. And we all saw what happened on Jan. 6.”
Rep. Judy Chu (D-Calif.) delivered a similar message. While Chu predicted that Trump’s return to Twitter would inevitably lead to a flood of “outrageous statements” that might help her own party, she stressed that the threat of violence outweighs all other factors.
“If he continues to incite the people towards violence, which he did with Jan. 6, then he should not be on [Twitter],” she said. “Because I draw the line at violence, hate crimes, things that would do harm to people. And he’s shown that he will do that.”
If Democrats are virtually united in their opposition to Trump’s return to Twitter, however, there’s less agreement about Congress’s role in determining the outcome. Some lawmakers said that, because Twitter is a private enterprise, there’s little the federal government can do to dictate its guidelines and content.
“That’s a private company,” said Vargas. “I don’t think we can do that.”
Others disagreed, arguing Congress has a crucial role to play in establishing corporate guidelines — a role that’s particularly vital when it pertains to the massively influential world of technology and social media.
“We have to decide in Congress, too, what the rules of the road need to be,” said Rep. Suzan DelBene (D-Wash.), a former Microsoft executive who now heads the New Democrat Coalition. “I don’t think … that it should just be purely an arbitrary decision of a CEO of a company. I think Congress has to set the rules.”
Trump leaned heavily on Twitter as a way to promote his unorthodox candidacy and churn countless headlines during his stunning ascension to the White House in 2016. His success on the platform paid enormous dividends, allowing him to build a massive base of supporters drawn to his unvarnished observations on national events and no-holds-barred approach to campaigning.
The gush of tweets continued throughout his time in office — until the final weeks.
After the Jan. 6, 2021, attack on the Capitol, Twitter, which like other tech platforms had given world leaders wider latitude than other users, took the remarkable step of barring Trump from its platform, saying the president posed a threat of sparking additional violence.
“After close review of recent Tweets from the @realDonaldTrump account and the context around them — specifically how they are being received and interpreted on and off Twitter — we have permanently suspended the account due to the risk of further incitement of violence,” the company wrote two days after the riot.
Republicans, already entrenched in a fight against “cancel culture,” lambasted the decision, accusing Twitter of “censoring” Trump only because he was a popular conservative voice.
Musk, the libertarian-minded founder of Tesla and the world’s wealthiest man, has long criticized Twitter’s policies, particularly when it came to culling voices from the platform. On Tuesday, he said the ban on Trump was “not correct” and that he would “reverse” it if he succeeds in acquiring Twitter.
“Permanent bans should be extremely rare and really reserved for accounts that are bots, or scam, spam accounts,” Musk said during a Financial Times summit on the future of automobiles. “I think that was a mistake, because it alienated a large part of the country and did not ultimately result in Donald Trump not having a voice.”
Rep. Ro Khanna, a California Democrat who represents much of Silicon Valley, said he’s planning to talk to Musk directly on the topic in the coming weeks. His advice, Khanna said, would be for Musk to establish a sturdy system of “independent governance” that would take the tough decisionmaking — like questions of whether to ban certain users — out of the hands of any one company leader.
“I don’t know why anyone would want to be making all the calls on Twitter. It’s got to be one of the most controversial jobs in America,” Khanna said. “So to the extent that he can set up independent structures of governance to make those decisions, I think the better.”
Khanna, like DelBene, argued for Congress’s role in creating certain federal guidelines to govern powerful tech companies like Twitter. But unlike other Democrats, he also questioned the logic and legality of keeping Trump off of those popular platforms, especially if he runs for the presidency again in 2024.
“There have got to be strong guardrails. And if there is further incitement of violence, then there have to be consequences,” Khanna said. “But I don’t see how, if he becomes the nominee of the Republicans in ’24 as a serious contender, how you can keep him off some of these public forums.”