Trump made Twitter the White House’s spiked-ball cudgel. Ron Klain wants to change that.March 4, 2021
After four years in which the White House used Twitter as a tool to batter the media and knife political opponents, the Biden administration is trying a softer touch.
Officials are using the social media platform to project a sense of competence and calm — not launch narcissistic tirades. It’s being deployed to woo lawmakers, and less often shame them. And instead of the president himself doing the rapid-fire posting, it’s his grammar-obeying chief of staff.
Washington’s hottest Twitter feed is now an acronym managed by its most powerful bureaucrat, Ron Klain. His handle, @WHCOS, has become the source of fascination—building a sense of intrigue that the White House seems inclined to feed, with aides studiously letting reporters know that he operates it on his own.
To outside observers, including Capitol Hill aides, lobbyists and the news media — many of which have set their phones to ding every time Klain tweets — his feed is a kind of Rorschach test: either reinforcing the idea that Klain is a partisan combatant masquerading as an honest broker or the work of an expert multitasker with a knack for documenting Biden’s incremental achievements while keeping the focus on big-picture priorities.
Behind the theatrics of it all, there is a strategy. Take Klain’s decision to use Twitter to elevate a news story about Sen. Mitt Romney (R-Utah) unveiling his plan to provide at least $3,000 in child benefits, lending bipartisan support to similar efforts being drafted at the time by Biden and Senate Democrats.
“Obviously, Romney can give his own ideas a lot of prominence, but it’s not lost on him and not lost on his colleagues that, with one introduction, he got the notice of the chief of staff of the president,” said Rahm Emanuel, Barack Obama’s former chief of staff, whose Twitter claim to fame was a profane parody account that described him as Chicago’s “next [motherf—ing] mayor.”
“Ron was out there shaping the debate around these things. He’s not only prolific, but he’s strategic,” Emanuel said.
While Klain may be using Twitter to occasionally charm Republicans, his postings far more often end up inflaming them. GOP staffers said they were not amused with the chief’s running digital commentary, including retweets they believe disrespect their bosses and promote opinion-makers critical of them — position’s antithetical to Biden’s vows to work with them.
“Resistance Twitter trolls rejoice — you have a comrade in arms in Ron Klain,” said a senior GOP aide with alerts set for Klain. “He has the will, the appetite, and apparently the time to join you in trolling senators, elevating deep thinkers like Jennifer Rubin and Kyle Griffin, and carelessly retweeting things he later has to delete.”
Klain isn’t the first White House chief of staff to use Twitter, but he’s much more active than his predecessors. Mark Meadows, former President Donald Trump’s last chief of staff, tweeted only about 150 times during his nearly 10 months as chief of staff.
Klain, by contrast, has tweeted every day since Biden took office. He sends an average of 34 tweets a day (40 if you exclude weekends and holidays), though he’s tweeted as many as 65 times in a day. Since Jan. 20, he has retweeted the aforementioned Rubin, a columnist for The Washington Post who once was a conservative but has become deeply critical of Republicans, 15 times; he’s retweeted Griffin, a senior producer for Lawrence O’Donnell’s MSNBC show, 37 times.
Klain appears to have settled into a daily rhythm on Twitter. He usually sends out his first tweet of the day by 8 a.m. and rarely tweets after midnight on weekdays, though he’s made a few exceptions, such as his 1:59 a.m. retweet of a C-SPAN producer last month during a late-night Senate “vote-a-rama.” He’s un-retweeted messages that contained errors, as well as one promoting Vice President Kamala Harris and Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg as a presidential ticket in 2028.
If you were to only consume news through the lens of his Twitter account, the Biden administration would seem like a very serious place where very serious people do very serious work. There’s the real task of rebuilding trust in government (“If you’ve worked in government at any level, you know that @fema is an incredible organization,” as he wrote on Jan. 30). And the temperature taking of public sentiment for Biden’s executive orders (they were popular); Biden’s rescue plan (widely popular; even among registered Republicans) and Biden himself (popular!)
Klain’s earliest tweets tried to lower the bar for an administration by focusing on the daunting challenges that lay ahead.
Often, he amplifies news stories shared by reporters. Sometimes, he promotes the tweets of allies who are pushing back on unflattering reports about him. In others, he’ll gently do the flacking himself, dropping reminders that Biden isn’t even halfway to his first 100 days.
It’s all fascinating. And it might be effective.
“A lot of people look back at the Obama administration and see as their key mistake not what their priorities were, or even how they went about them, but how much credit they took for them along the way,” said John Gruber, the technology and design writer at Daring Fireball, who counts himself as a devoted follower of Klain’s tweets. “Not even credit like ‘Hey look at us, we’re awesome,’ but sort of a ‘look at what we’re accomplishing.’ And that’s what I see with Klain’s tweets. They form a sort of blog. And it’s ‘here’s what we did today.’”
While much of the original content feeds off of the work of Biden’s press operation, Klain’s greatest accomplishment on Twitter may be managing to sound like a real person rather than a collection of dry White House talking points.
“He’s got a really good gut for how to authentically use the platform,” said Alex Witt, the audience development director of the Center for American Progress think tank, who’s been in touch with the White House about the progressive social media landscape. “He’s not just putting out press releases.”
Klain’s own colleagues offered positive, if mostly on-message assessments for why he puts so much effort into Twitter: 1) He enjoys it. 2) He’s good at it and can multitask. 3) It’s where reporters congregate. 4) He’s the boss. 5) and “why the f— not?” as one put it.
His is not the only account to push out news. The Biden White House created other Twitter handles for Cabinet secretaries and staffers on the idea that more voices on the platform is better than fewer. But, as another aide put it, “He’s the hype man for the administration.”
It’s a medium that suits his frenetic personality, observed Laurence Tribe, Klain’s former teacher and the Harvard constitutional law scholar.
“Ever since he was my student, he was very adept at thinking through the political, ethical and legal limits of everything and I’m sure he’s figured out an algorithm for himself,” said Tribe, who employs a bit more of a let-er-rip Twitter personality.
Klain follows 311 accounts: Biden administration officials, lawmakers, news outlets, progressive activists and more than 100 reporters, editors, columnists and cable news hosts (including 19 who work at NBC News or MSNBC, to which Klain gave his first interview after being named chief of staff and where he was a frequent guest during the Trump era).
The accounts he follows give a sense of his political sensibility: They include early stars of the progressive blogosphere — Markos Moulitsas, Josh Marshall — as well as the younger “Juicebox Mafia” writers who rose to prominence in Washington a decade ago: Dave Weigel, Matt Yglesias and Ezra Klein.
He’s less enmeshed in conservative Twitter, following just a handful of the accounts (Meadows among them), though he once shared work from the Bulwark, the news outlet of the never-Trump cognoscenti.
“Bidenworld sees never-Trumpers/former Republicans as part of the coalition and [cultivates] that audience,” said Tim Miller, a former GOP operative who writes for the site and supported Biden’s campaign. “At least I hope so, maybe he just thinks our material is brilliant hot fire.”
While he follows party leaders such House Speaker Nancy Pelosi and Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, he also tracks the activity of lesser-known backbenchers like Reps. Haley Stevens (D-Mich.) and Ashley Hinson (R-Iowa).
What about Sen. Chuck Grassley (R-Iowa), whose folksy tweets about dead animals and the Windsor Heights Dairy Queen being a “good place for u kno what,” have gone viral? Klain’s not on his radar.
“Sen. Grassley uses Twitter primarily as a megaphone and doesn’t spend much time on what others say on the platform,” a spokesperson deadpanned. “So, he doesn’t have any comment on Mr. Klain’s Twitter usage.”
For others on the Hill, the feed has become a must watch — not just to see if one’s boss is being mentioned, but to get a somewhat less varnished glimpse of the thinking inside the White House. “Honestly, he’s my news feed,” said a Klain admirer on Capitol Hill. “If I want to know what’s happening in the White House or White Houseland, I go to his feed.”
“I wish I was able to manage my time in such a way that could be both one of the most powerful people in the country and be as online as he is,” the Democratic aide added.
A Washington lobbyist confessed that Klain’s tweets have become required reading downtown, as well. “You have to pay attention,” the lobbyist said.
Chris Whipple, whose book “The Gatekeepers” is the definitive work on chief of staffs, said the tweets served to reveal Klain’s “whirling dervish” personality. Besides Nixon’s chief, H.R. Haldeman, no other official in that position has had the time to keep a diary, Whipple said.
That may work for Klain, but “if everybody else in the White House starts doing it, then you’ve got chaos,” Whipple said.