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Who Is The Mystery Man Behind @realDonaldTrump? (Besides The President)

Apr 19, 2018
Originally published on April 20, 2018 10:26 am

Just who controls the Twitter handle @realDonaldTrump? If you guessed the president, journalist Robert Draper says you might be only partially correct.

Draper's recent New York Times Magazine article profiles White House social media director Dan Scavino — a man Draper estimates helps craft about half of the president's tweets.

Scavino first met Trump on the golf course in 1990, when he worked as Trump's caddie. Three decades later, Draper says, a certain golf-course dynamic still exists between the president and the man who helps manage his Twitter feed.

"Dan Scavino doesn't have an ideology other than loving Donald Trump," Draper says. "He does ... whatever Trump wants him to do — and in that sense he was then and still is a kind of caddie."

Draper says that Scavino deliberately shies away from the limelight: "[The White House] would prefer that we see [@realDonaldTump] as the unvarnished Donald Trump." But, Draper adds, "Dan Scavino, a person most Americans have never heard of, is in a lot of ways a more acute window onto Trump than almost any other. ... No one understands Trump's base ... more than Dan Scavino."


Interview Highlights

On Scavino's aggressive defense of the president on Twitter

Scavino is yet another individual who was a perfectly normal soul, so it seemed, until he fell down the Trump rabbit hole. As this Westchester County suburbanite, one would never have expected a person like Dan Scavino to become a Donald Trump attack dog, but that is, in fact, what has taken place — both on Trump's Twitter account and on Dan Scavino's personal Twitter account. ... To the extent that Trump believes in (as he puts it) "counter-punching," Dan Scavino is very much a part of that counterpunching mechanism.

On which of Trump's tweets may have been crafted by Scavino

If you look at Trump's Twitter page, you'll see, for one thing, a few sort of anodyne things: "I'll be at such-and-such a place at 1 o'clock." Trump's not writing that; Dan Scavino is.

Then you'll see other things that will say, "I'm not the corrupt one; Hillary Clinton is corrupt." And it will list three or four reasons why Hillary Clinton is the corrupt one, not Trump. Well, that's Trump, but it's Trump in "collusion," as it were, with Scavino, who will supply the litany of examples.

There are also some tweets that Trump will dictate to Scavino and Scavino will then polish them up, make sure there are no grammatical errors or anything like that. Trump will look at them and then say, "OK, that looks good," or "No, no. I want you to put this back in." Then he'll say, "Go ahead and hit send," and Scavino will do so. ...

There certainly are tweets that Trump himself writes in the dark of night or first thing in the morning that Dan Scavino sees when the rest of the world sees. That's probably about half of the tweets overall. But of the 37,000 or so tweets that Trump has sent out, Dan Scavino is responsible for — at least as a "co-conspirator" to — about half of those.

On the Trump style of tweeting, with all-caps and exclamation points

Let's for one thing establish ... that none of us are in the room when individual tweets are happening. I would've loved to deconstruct a series of tweets for this story and say, "Here's what Scavino supplied. Here's what the first draft of this was." I was unable. It happens to be an intimate act for President Trump ... something that all takes place backstage.

Having said all of that, Trump more or less set his own template with the all-caps and saying "Sad!" but Scavino has added to that template. Trump didn't know how to do a hashtag before [Scavino]. ... [Trump] would have a general sentiment, but would lack specifics.

When we look at a Trump tweet, it is, in many ways, an amalgamation of Trump's basic grievance — the establishment of a grievance or an establishment of a boast, supplied then with a few technical details such as hashtags and things. The all-caps is something Trump has been doing going back to, I'd say, 2012, before Scavino had any access to Trump's Twitter account. He began, Scavino did, to "co-conspire" with Trump on the @realDonaldTrump Twitter account in 2015.

On the puzzling Trump tweet with the nonsense word "covfefe"

This was a tweet that took place, of course, six minutes after midnight on May 31, 2017, from the @realDonaldTrump Twitter account. It simply says, "Despite the constant negative press covfefe," there's nothing that takes place after that. Washington was roiling with an effort to decipher this word "covfefe," scrambling in Urban [Dictionary] trying to figure out its meaning. ...

The reality is that, at the time, no one knew anything about that tweet. The word "covfefe" in the context of what that sentence seemed to be heading towards in all likelihood meant "coverage" and he just simply stopped writing. For what reason? We don't know. Maybe his phone rang. Maybe he fell asleep. We're not sure.

There's a few tipoffs, by the way, as to why that tweet was completely Donald Trump. One of them is the hour, 12:06 a.m.; the other is that it is a misspelling, a half-finished thought, a half-finished sentence. Scavino is essentially around to correct grammatical errors, correct misspellings.

The Trump White House was very resistant to deconstructing this stuff for me and elaborating on Dan Scavino's role in President Trump's individual tweets, but they did concede to me that yes, Scavino will correct misspellings and all that. Therefore it defies any rational imagination that Scavino would've allowed this to pass. This was in fact, for better or worse, the unvarnished Donald Trump at work.

On why Scavino refuses to be interviewed

Scavino is reticent for a couple of reasons. One of them is that he has watched one staffer after the next — most famously Anthony Scaramucci, who lasted for 10 days or so — to fall on their sword, to self-emulate, pick your metaphor, but basically to call too much attention to themselves, which is something the president can't stand. As President Trump said when he was candidate Trump to Corey Lewandowski in 2016 when there was a glowing profile of Lewandowski that got a lot of attention, he said to Lewandowski, "There's only one star in this campaign."

Scavino has learned that all too well. For that reason he has been reluctant to submit to any interviews. But the other reason, of course, is the one that we're talking about, which is that this is a surprisingly sensitive subject. Trump values a lot of things, and Scavino supplies those: He values loyalty, he values love, but he also values the primacy of his "personal printing press" and wants the world to believe that it's his and his alone.

On Trump referring to North Korean leader Kim Jong Un as "rocket man" in a tweet

It has created heartburn for everybody in the West Wing when the president does something like that, going after a leader of a foreign country and attacking them, calling them names. The recognition that there will be repercussions is not lost on someone like Scavino, but no one tries to prevent [Trump] from doing it.

In the Bush administration I remember they used to say that people who would come in to tell the president something he didn't want to hear was on the order of "walking into the helicopter propellers." But Bush could actually take criticism far better than President Trump does. ... Telling Trump you can't or shouldn't say this or that on Twitter is a grave offense to him. Scavino has learned, like anyone else who is a survivor in the West Wing, that there are some battles that just aren't worth fighting.

On reporting by the Washington Post that shows Scavino's possible ties to Russia

There were emails that indicated communications between Scavino in his capacity as social media director for the Trump campaign and a Russian Facebook page, a Russian version of Facebook, wanting to help out on the Trump campaign, wanting to post things on the site. There was a particular American intermediary, Rob Goldstone, who figures into a lot of this "Russiagate" stuff, who was putting Scavino in touch with these Russians.

Scavino's reply, according to the emails that were read to The Washington Post, he replied with enthusiasm, "Yes indeed, I'd love to know more about this." We now know, of course, that Russia had an involvement in the Facebook activities relating to the election — if not to Trump's campaign itself. But that there were these interactions between the Russian Facebook page and the Trump campaign at least momentarily would seemingly be the kind of thing that would draw the interest of the special counsel. ...

This means a lot of legal fees for Scavino, but, of course, it could mean a lot worse. It could mean that Scavino had an involvement with Russians whose interest it was to swing the election over to Donald Trump, obviously an interest that the Trump campaign shared. And if that collusion exists, it could well be that Dan Scavino is in the thick of it. If that's the case, then he has more than just legal fees to be worried about.

Sam Briger and Seth Kelley produced and edited this interview for broadcast. Bridget Bentz, Molly Seavy-Nesper and Martina Stewart adapted it for the Web.

Copyright 2018 Fresh Air. To see more, visit Fresh Air.

TERRY GROSS, HOST:

This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross. Donald Trump is the first president to become internationally known for his tweet storms, insulting world leaders, insulting his domestic opponents, firing his secretary of state and firing up his base. He's also the first president to have a director of social media. That man is Dan Scavino. The tweets get a lot of attention, but few people know about Scavino.

So who is he, and what role does he play in writing Trump's tweets? Those are some of the questions my guest, Robert Draper, sets out to answer in his New York Times Magazine article, "The Man Behind The President's Tweets: Unraveling The Mystery Of The Inscrutable White House Social Media Director Whose Job Is To Help @RealDonaldTrump Stay Unpresidential." The article is already on the Times' website and will be in the newspaper Sunday. Draper is a writer at large for The Times Magazine.

Robert Draper, welcome back to FRESH AIR.

ROBERT DRAPER: Thanks so much for having me.

GROSS: Why did you want to write about Dan Scavino?

DRAPER: Because Dan Scavino, a person most Americans have never heard of, is in a lot of ways a window onto Trump. A more acute window, I should say, than almost any other. He shows you what Trump values the most. He shows you how to track the evolution of modern White House communications. And Scavino is - we should, I suppose, establish at this point he has an important job. His title is assistant to the president. And he has an important location, which is a West Wing office just outside of the Oval Office. But what's his actual job? That's what I wanted to find out, and basically the thumbnail sketch of it is that he manages Trump's Twitter account. And in the end, Trump values his personal printing, press his Twitter page, more than just about anything.

GROSS: What does it mean that he manages Trump's Twitter account? Because Trump seems to be - I don't know, everybody's impression is that Trump wakes up and just starts tweeting either in the middle of the night or first thing in the morning. And I doubt that Dan Scavino's in bed with him when he does that. So in what way does he actually manage Trump's Twitter account?

DRAPER: Yeah. No, it's a good question, and certainly, as you've just described it, Terry, that's how the White House would prefer that we think of Trump's tweets. They would prefer that we see this as the unvarnished Donald Trump. This is Donald Trump circumnavigating fake news, and telling us what's really on his mind and what's really the truth. Well, that's kind of the way it goes, but not entirely. When Trump decides he wants to tweet something - so if you look at Trump's Twitter page, you'll see, for one thing, a few sort of anodyne things - I'll be at such and such a place at 1 o'clock. Trump's not writing that. Dan Scavino is.

Then you'll see other things that will say, I'm not the corrupt one, Hillary Clinton is corrupt. And it'll list three or four reasons why Hillary Clinton is the corrupt one, not Trump. Well, that's Trump, but it's Trump in collusion, as it were, with Scavino, who will supply the litany of examples. There are also some tweets that Trump will dictate to Scavino, and Scavino will then polish them up, make sure there are no grammatical errors or anything like that. Trump will look at them and then say, OK, that looks good there. Or, no, no, I want you to put this back in. And then he'll say, you know, go ahead and hit send. And Scavino will do so.

You're right that there certainly are tweets that Trump himself writes in the dark of night or first thing in the morning that Dan Scavino sees when the rest of the world sees. That's probably about half of the tweets overall. But of the 37,000 or so tweets that Trump has sent out, Dan Scavino is responsible for, you know, at least as a co-conspirator, to about half of those.

GROSS: So I looked at Dan Scavino's tweets, and like President Trump, you know, like, fake news is in capital letters. So I have a stylistic question for you. (Laughter).

DRAPER: (Laughter). Yes.

GROSS: Trump's tweets are so full of capital letters and scare quotes. Is that something that you think initially came from Trump, or did Scavino kind of set the tone, set the style for Trump to follow with the scare quotes and the caps?

DRAPER: So let's, for one thing, establish, Terry, that none of us is in the room when individual tweets are happening. And I would have loved to have been able to deconstruct a series of tweets for this story and say, you know, here's what's Scavino supplied, here's, you know, what the first draft of this was. And I was unable. It happens to be an intimate act for President Trump on the order of getting that hairdo of his ready. You know, it's something that all takes place backstage. Having said all of that, Trump more or less set his own template with the all caps and saying sad, exclamation point. But Scavino has added to that template. Trump didn't know how to do a hashtag before, and Trump, he would have a general sentiment but would lack specifics.

And so when we look at a Trump tweet, it is in many ways an amalgamation of Trump's basic grievance, the establishment of a grievance or the establishment of a boast, and supplied then with a few technical details such as hashtags and things. But yes, the all caps actually is something that Trump has been doing going back to, I'd say, 2012, before Scavino had any access to Trump's Twitter account. He began, Scavino did, to co-conspire with Trump on the @RealDonaldTrump Twitter account in 2015.

GROSS: So I want to play an example of, like, what could possibly go wrong (laughter) you know, with Trump's tweets. And this is, you know, one of his most famous ones. This is one of the greatest hits. This is the covfefe tweet. And nobody knew, like, what covfefe meant. So Robert, would you read the tweet for us?

DRAPER: Sure. This was a tweet that took place, of course, six minutes after midnight on May 31, 2017, from the @RealDonaldTrump Twitter account. It simply says, (reading) despite the constant negative press, covfefe.

Covfefe was spelled C-O-V-F-E-F-E. There's nothing that takes place after that. And so Washington was roiling with an effort to decipher this word, covfefe, scrambling in urban dictionaries trying to figure out its meaning. And...

GROSS: So I'm going to stop you there because we actually have the Sean Spicer clip where Sean Spicer is at a news briefing and he's being asked, like, what does covfefe mean? And so here's how that went.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED REPORTER #1: Do you think people should be concerned that the president posted somewhat of an incoherent tweet last night and that it then stayed up for hours?

SEAN SPICER: No.

UNIDENTIFIED REPORTER #1: Why did it stay up so long? Is no one watching this?

SPICER: Now, I think the president and a small group of people know exactly what he meant. Blake.

(CROSSTALK)

SPICER: Blake.

UNIDENTIFIED REPORTER #2: What does it mean?

SPICER: Blake.

UNIDENTIFIED REPORTER #3: Thanks. I want to...

UNIDENTIFIED REPORTER #2: What is covfefe?

SPICER: Blake.

UNIDENTIFIED REPORTER #3: I want to go to Paris for a second...

UNIDENTIFIED REPORTER #2: No. But see, you can't...

SPICER: Blake.

UNIDENTIFIED REPORTER #1: Don't those tweets speak for itself?

GROSS: (Laughter). OK.

DRAPER: (Laughter).

GROSS: So what, if anything, were you able to learn about that? Like, Sean Spicer said that the president and a small group of people know exactly what the president meant.

DRAPER: Well, that's Sean Spicer's...

GROSS: That explanation never went anywhere. Yeah.

DRAPER: Right. Yeah. No, that's Sean Spicer's version of thinking on his feet. The reality is that at the time, no one knew anything about that tweet. The word covfefe, and, in the context of what that sentence seemed to be heading towards, in all likelihood meant coverage. And he just simply stopped writing. For what reason, we don't know. Maybe his phone rang. Maybe he fell asleep. We're not sure. There's a few tip offs, by the way, as to why that tweet, at, least was completely Donald Trump. One of them is the hour, at 12:06 a.m. The other is that it is a, you, know a misspelling, a half-finished thought, half-finished sentence. And Scavino is essentially around, you know, to correct grammatical errors, correct misspellings.

The Trump White House, I should say, was very resistant to deconstructing this stuff for me and elaborating on Dan Scavino's roles in President Trump's individual tweets. But they did concede to me that, yes, you know, Scavino will correct misspellings and all that. It therefore defies any rational, you know, imagination that Scavino would have allowed this to pass. This was, in fact, for better or for worse, the unvarnished Donald Trump at work.

GROSS: So you said that the aides were, people in the White House, were reluctant to talk with you about Dan Scavino, and Dan Scavino would not talk with you.

DRAPER: That's right. Yeah. And I tried for months to get him to do so. Now, Scavino is reticent for a couple of reasons. One of them is that he has watched, you know, one staffer after the next, most famously Anthony Scaramucci, who lasted for 10 days or so, to fall on their sword, to self-emulate. Pick your metaphor. But, basically to call too much attention to themselves, which is something that the president can't stand, as President Trump said, when he was candidate Trump, to Corey Lewandowski in 2016. And there was a glowing profile written of Lewandowski that got a lot of attention. He said to Lewandowski, you know, there's only one star in this campaign. And Scavino has learned that all too well. So for that reason, he has been reluctant to submit to any interviews.

But the other reason, of course, is the one that we're talking about, which is that this is a surprisingly sensitive subject. Trump values a lot of things, and Scavino supplies those. He values loyalty. He values love and - but he also values the primacy of his personal printing press and wants the world to believe that it's his and his alone. And so for anybody to say, well, actually, you know, I had a hand in that - and frequently, by the way, people will do so. There will be friends of Trump's who will say to him, Mr. President, you know, you ought to tweet this out. They'll suggest, you know, a turn of phrase. When Trump is on Air Force One, or previous to this, when he was on his 757, he'd have his aides around him while he'd be writing a tweet, and they would suggest wording. His former communications director, Hope Hicks, was apparently very good at put-downs, and Trump would often incorporate that stuff.

But the notion that this is a collaborative effort, the notion that this is something other than just one great man's writing - the person who has referred to himself as the Ernest Hemingway of Twitter - is like a mortal blow that Trump himself, you know, simply cannot accept. And so it's for that reason that Scavino and all the others in the White House were extremely resistant to me touching on this particular topic.

GROSS: But you say that Scavino is considered to be the conductor of the Trump train. What does that mean?

DRAPER: Yeah, so I mentioned just a minute ago that Trump values love and being loved. The Trump train is the enthusiastic fan base of which Scavino was the conductor. Now, what does it mean to be the conductor of his base? It really just means to be the guy who follows those people on Twitter, who will tweet out to them, who will retweet their own stuff, who will rile them up and get them excited by supplying video imagery of Trump at a White House event or out on the campaign trail doing some kind of rally with huge crowds. And then what Scavino will do is show that end product - show the retweets, the people liking a particular tweet of Trump's or of a particular event - to the president himself.

And so that's why, you know, when - in 2016, when I first, you know, began to be really interested in Dan Scavino, I'd see this guy there who was part of this very small group that would follow the candidate around. It would be Hope Hicks, the communications director, Keith Schiller, the director of security, and Corey Lewandowski, the campaign manager. It was an unorthodox campaign, but at least those were roles that were familiar roles you could understand. But then there's this other guy who's standing at the side of the stage taking photographs and then glowering at his laptop while he's on Trump's plane, later posting them onto Facebook, and I just thought, wow, is this guy just, like, a member of Trump's fan club? He was. He was the conductor of that fan club. He was the conductor of the Trump train. As it turned out, that was a very important job for Donald Trump.

GROSS: So it sounds like, during the campaign, there were two jobs Scavino had. One was to be the conductor of the Trump train - you know, feed the enthusiasm of the base. But the other was to show a flattering mirror to the president and show him the best tweets that would boost his ego.

DRAPER: Sure. Yeah. Now, to back into this, Terry, when Scavino first joined the campaign, he was someone who had zero political experience, was himself a registered independent, you know, was not seemingly a guy who'd be of any particular value to this nascent candidacy. But he was a Trump loyalist. He was a Trump diehard. He - you know, Trump had met him on the golf course when Trump was golfing and Scavino was his caddy. Years later, Scavino worked up the ranks. He became the assistant manager of that very golf course and then the general manager.

Then when Trump decides he wants to run for president in early 2015, Scavino immediately volunteers. He had going for him that he was a loyalist - that was it - and started out just doing whatever the campaign asked of him, ranging from going to get Trump's, you know, McDonald's burgers and KFC buckets to meeting with VIPs and being a glad-hander. But that over time morphed into being the guy who would post - take photographs and take videos and post them onto Trump's Facebook account and then began to be, as well, the person who would help Trump put things out on Twitter. So it was really that he was an omnibus kind of guy, willing to do anything and everything, that made him of value.

But the thing that mattered most to Trump - even when Facebook was beginning to gain traction as a very important component to Trump's 2016 campaign, Trump understood in the abstract that this thing that Jared Kushner was helping to spearhead was of value to the campaign, but he really didn't care about it. He would have Scavino, you know, come onstage now and again and say, you know, we've now had X number of million impressions, X number of likes and follows on Facebook. What mattered to Trump, though, was the visceral immediacy and impact of Twitter. And Scavino's proximity to him became particularly important, owing to what he was doing with Trump on Trump's Twitter account.

GROSS: Well, why don't we take a short break here? And then we'll talk some more about President Trump's social media director, Dan Scavino. My guest is Robert Draper, who writes about Scavino in The New York Times Magazine. We'll be right back. This is FRESH AIR.

(SOUNDBITE OF DAN AUERBACH'S "HEARTBROKEN, IN DISREPAIR")

GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. And if you're just joining us, my guest is Robert Draper, who writes about President Trump's social media director, Dan Scavino, in the current edition of The New York Times Magazine.

Trump has also tweeted several GIFs over time - like, controversial GIFs - for instance, the one where Trump is wrestling someone. And the person, in reality, was Vince McMahon, the head of the WWE, and this was part of one of their wrestling spectacles. But in the GIF, instead of seeing Vince McMahon's head, we see, like, a CNN logo. So it looked like, OK, President Trump is physically attacking CNN. There was another GIF of President Trump swinging a golf club, and the ball hits Hillary Clinton. So some people might think that these are really funny, and a lot of people think they are offensive and dangerous. Do you know - does Trump spend time looking for GIFs to retweet or is that Scavino who finds them, shows them to Trump, and then Trump tweets them?

DRAPER: The latter. Trump does have the capability of going on - and he now has an iPhone - of scrolling up and down Twitter and looking at things. But he'd frankly rather watch TV. He'd rather watch Fox News. And so it's not Trump who spends hours and hours going through all this stuff seeing, you know, who's saying what about him. And why do so, after all, when you're president Trump and have just down the hall a person who is paid $179,700 a year to do exactly that? Dan Scavino spends hours upon hours, you know, looking and seeing what the base is saying. And if he'll see a particular image, he'll show it to the president directly. And he'll say a take a look at that. And Trump will say, wow, that's great. Tweet that out.

Again, we can't say conclusively whether those particular gifs that you just mentioned, Terry, were ones that followed the order that I've just described. But the circumstantial evidence is very plain that that's how it works because it is - and the White House was very upfront with me about this aspect - that no one understands Trump's base - no one pays attention to that base and courts that base and cultivates that base more than Dan Scavino. Now, as I came to learn, that does not mean that like Scavino goes out and has drinks with members of the alt-right or talks to them on the phone all the time or even trades emails with them.

Steve Bannon had told me that this alt-right figure Mike Cernovich, who was promulgating that pizza-gate theory where in Hillary Clinton's people supposedly were running a pedophilia ring in the basement of a Washington, D.C., area pizzeria - Steve Bannon had said to me, I didn't even know who Mike Cernovich was until Scavino introduced him to me. And those are the kind of people that Scavino stays in touch with. I talked to Cernovich about this, and it turns out that he'd never spoken to Scavino in his life - that they'd never traded emails, never done direct messages, anything like that.

That didn't however mean that what Bannon was saying was untrue. It just meant that the relationship that Scavino had with him was purely a Twitter relationship. He would see what they were up to on their Twitter feeds. He would retweet it. He would show it to Trump. Trump would respond in kind. And so having his hands on the Pepes (ph), as Steve Bannon put it to me about Scavino, really consists on just following what they do on Twitter and letting the president know.

GROSS: So in some ways, Scavino helped connect Trump to the alt-right and to white nationalists through connecting them on Twitter.

DRAPER: That's right. And I should say that there's no evidence available that Dan Scavino shares their ideology. In fact, I should speak even more broadly and say that that Dan Scavino doesn't have an ideology other than loving Donald Trump. And in that sense, he's probably like millions in his base who - for whatever ideology they had before, they abandoned it. And now their ideology can just best be described as Trump supporters. And so to Dan Scavino, what matters about these people is that they are attacking Trump's opponents and that they are applauding Trump. The fact that they may be white nationalists is not a positive for Scavino. It's also however not a disqualifier.

And so that has gotten Scavino in trouble, such as during the campaign when he retweeted a Star of David relating to Hillary Clinton and was immediately called out for being, you know, supportive of white nationalists. And Scavino's response was no, no, no, this was actually meant to be a sheriff's star to show how - to symbolize how Hillary Clinton has run afoul of the law. What it shows you then is that Scavino was seeing things that were useful to the campaign without having a full appreciation of the ideological undergirdings of those.

GROSS: My guest is Robert Draper. His New York Times Magazine article "The Man Behind The President's Tweets" is on the website and will be published in Sunday's paper. After a break, we'll talk more about how being close to the president could get Scavino in trouble. And David Bianculli will review the return of two dystopian series set in the near future - "The Handmaid's Tale" and "Westworld." I'm Terry Gross, and this is FRESH AIR.

(SOUNDBITE OF TAMIR HENDELMAN'S "ANTHROPOLOGY")

GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross back with Robert Draper. We're talking about his new article "The Man Behind The President's Tweets." It's about President Trump's Social Media Director Dan Scavino and what his role is in writing and editing the president's tweets and then firing up his base. The article is now on the New York Times website and will be published in Sunday's paper. Draper is writer at large for the magazine.

You describe Scavino as being the only remaining member of the, quote, "originals." Who were the originals? And why do you think he's the only remaining member?

DRAPER: Sure. The campaign began on June the 16, 2015. At that point in time, there were just three or four people working on the 24th floor of Trump Tower for the Trump campaign. It was Corey Lewandowski, the campaign manager, Hope Hicks, the communications director, Sam Nunberg, the political adviser, Keith Schiller, who was Trump's security director. You could arguably put George Gigicos, who was the advanced director, in that category. And then a couple of months later, Michael Glassner joined as deputy campaign manager. One by one, they all fell away. Scavino then was the last person left standing.

And again, that's because I think he has not called attention to himself, that he has been willing to do whatever work is expected of him. He is often by the president's side, albeit in the shadows. And so he's a loyalist who doesn't draw attention to himself. And then of course, most importantly, he's the guy who manages Trump's Twitter account. And thus, you could argue, a man in possession of many secrets. And Trump has never felt threatened about that because Scavino himself does not put on any threatening airs. Nonetheless he, like Schiller, like Hicks, you know, know a lot about this president, know a lot about his moods and everything he has said.

Now, having said what I've just said, Terry, of course that leads to a question. Well, if you're a person who knows a lot about Trump, is that necessarily a good thing when you have Bob Mueller out there investigating Trump and wanting to talk to people who might know things about any malfeasance that's committed by the president? In fact, Dan Scavino has lawyered up. I don't know yet whether he's been interviewed by Mueller, but the Senate Judiciary Committee has inquired about his proximity to the president, his knowledge of things. So what that means is that in all likelihood Scavino will be, by virtue of being the loyalist, by being one of the last persons standing, also be a person to incur a lot of legal fees.

GROSS: You mentioned that the Senate Judiciary Committee has looked into Scavino. Dianne Feinstein, the ranking Democratic member of Judiciary, wrote to Scavino requesting documents and trying to schedule an interview for last January. On what grounds? What was that story about?

DRAPER: Well, in a sense, what Senator Feinstein was wanting to know was basically a fishing expedition because she said that, you know, Scavino was an integral part of the 2016 campaign, has been by the president's side all this time and just might know things. But more saliently, a month before that letter that the senator sent out to Scavino, The Washington Post broke a story that relayed a number of emails that they'd apparently been able to read. They were emails that indicated communications between Scavino, in his capacity as social media director for the Trump campaign, and a Russian Facebook page, a Russian version of Facebook, wanting to help out on the Trump campaign, wanting to post things on the site. And there was a particular American intermediary, Rob Goldstone, who figures into a lot of this Russiagate stuff, who was putting Scavino in touch with these Russians. And Scavino's reply, according to the emails that were read to The Washington Post, he replied with enthusiasm, yes, indeed. I'd love to know more about this.

We now know, of, course that Russia had an involvement in the Facebook activities relating to the election, if not to Trump's campaign itself, but that there were these interactions between the Russian Facebook page and the Trump campaign, at least momentarily would seemingly be the kind of thing that would draw the interest of the special counsel. And so I indicated a minute ago that this means a lot of legal fees for Scavino, but of course it could mean a lot worse. It could mean that Scavino had an involvement with Russians whose interests it was to swing the election over to Donald Trump, obviously an interest that the Trump campaign shared. And if that collusion exists, it could well be that Dan Scavino is in the thick of it. And if that's the case then he has more than just legal fees to be worried about.

GROSS: Yeah. So Russia's version of Facebook emails Scavino, and Scavino writes back, please feel free to send me whatever you have. Thanks so much for looking out for Mr. Trump and his presidential campaign. That's pretty remarkable.

DRAPER: It's pretty remarkable. We don't know anything after that. You know, I don't know how The Washington Post reporters managed to see these emails. They do not possess them, by the phraseology of The Washington Post story. And we don't know what emails, if any, came after. We don't know if meetings took place. It could be that that was the beginning and the end of it. But it's certainly tantalizing. And of course it is very much in keeping with Dan Scavino that he would say, as he did in his reply to Rob Goldstone, you know, sure. You know, thank you so much for taking the time to help out in Mr. Trump's campaign.

I mean, I think that Scavino at the time, you know, was doing anything and everything he could to help his boss. That had been his posture ever since he was the boss's caddy, you know, back when he was a teenager, when Scavino was. And it may well be that someone then pointed out to Scavino, you know what? We should steer clear of this. There are legal implications to involving oneself with the Russians. It may be that Scavino on his own just dropped the ball or was busy doing other things. But it may be something else, again. It may be that meetings took place. It may be that more correspondences are there. This again is, you know, among the mysteries that the Mueller inquiry is trying to unravel.

GROSS: So do you think Dan Scavino's job changed when Twitter expanded the number of characters you're allowed to use in any one tweet to 280 characters?

DRAPER: I don't think it changed exponentially, but I do think that it just meant, you know, more face time with the president, more time laboring over, you know, something that is elaborate in length. But I think that the main thing that has taken a toll on his personal life and, you know, may also have legal implications is that he has this constant back and forth with Trump about what Trump is going to say on Twitter and has a very vested involvement in, you know, Trump's social media activity. And, you know, I mean, on a certain level, that's probably exciting for Scavino because it really has become - and I'm astonishing myself by saying this aloud - that Trump has proved himself out to be a master of a medium in a way that Franklin Roosevelt was understood to be the master of radio and JFK, later, of television, that Trump now is really the first president of the social media era.

He's not the first president to make use of social media. In fact, whitehouse.gov was created in - the White House webpage was created in October 1994 during the Clinton administration. But back then if you, like, look at that - and you can actually go online and find the original whitehouse.gov. It has photos of Bill Clinton playing golf and of him playing his saxophone. It has photos of Socks, the cat. But that's all it is. Then under the Bush administration, it's very also starchy. You know, there's a results.gov part that tracks efficiency in government spending. There's a little bit of a cornball side with the so-called Barney Cam where a camera follows the White House and sees it through the eyes of the family dog, Barney.

And then later Obama, of course, is the first person in the White House or the first president to actually deploy Facebook and Twitter, but does so with great caution. And the tweets themselves that he writes, he really doesn't write. I mean, he never says, man, we've got to tweet this out, much less write something on his own. The tweets that come out of Obama's Twitter account take days and sometimes weeks to be vetted through legal and policy and ethics channels.

And so Trump has completely changed the game on all of that. And it's a game, by the way, that's being followed all over the world. I mean, now - and I'm not just talking about his own 50 million Twitter followers. I'm talking about other leaders. Like, the Prime Minister of India Narendra Modi has a Twitter game that's very, very, you know, that has echoes of Trump's. Benjamin Netanyahu of Israel, the same thing. Trump has led the way on all of this. And more, you know, close, to my home in Washington, D.C., a lot of us journalists wake up in the morning to the sound of a notification saying that Trump has just issued his first tweet of the day, which begins to drive, you know, the Trump news cycle.

GROSS: Yeah but you've hit on something that I think is really important. Like, President Trump is the first president who has actively tweeted himself and who is very, very active on Twitter because Twitter, in the terms of the American presidency, is very new. And so it's kind of remarkable that the first president to really use Twitter so much is setting the tone, and the tone is anything goes, whatever you want to say, like, no rules.

DRAPER: Yeah. And so I've said that he's shown the way. Well, what is that way? What is Twitter today? It's one of the most toxic social media pages out there, you know, far more so than, say, Instagram or I think even Facebook. And it's interesting, Terry, because, you know, Trump opened his Twitter account in 2009, didn't use it for a couple of years. And then he started using it very haltingly just talking about how great his hotel properties were and, you know, then issuing his own opinions about the Yankees and stuff like that. When he started talking about politics, nobody took him seriously. And, in fact, he was considered kind of an embarrassment.

And then when he established his candidacy on June 16, 2015, a remarkable thing happened. Trump went dark on Twitter for a 10-day period. And the reason for that I learned recently - I didn't put it in the story - is that he, you know, had that very, very rancorous and controversial announcement speech in which he talked about, you know, immigrants being rapists and thieves and drug dealers. And Trump's own campaign was a little concerned as to how that would play. And he stayed off Twitter because of that.

And it was only then when polls began to show that he was in second place behind Jeb Bush, that it had not crippled his presidency, that he then began to re-up on Twitter. And for a long time, a lot of us political observers would watch Trump on Twitter and think, you know, he is like destroying his candidacy, I mean, at its inception by saying these incredibly obnoxious and hurtful things.

But, in fact, they instead fortified this campaign-like motif that here was a guy who didn't bother to conceal, you know, the ugly, you know, the sort of superficial and ever-aggrieved and small side of himself. And in a weird way, that collapsed the difference between him and a lot of particularly white working-class people who saw themselves in him, saw that he told it like it was. And even if you'd hear them say, I kind of wish he'd stay off Twitter, they also kind of liked it.

GROSS: OK. We're going to need to take a short break here. If you're just joining us, my guest is Robert Draper, who writes about President Trump's social media director, Dan Scavino, in the current edition of The New York Times Magazine. It's already online, you can read it there. We'll be right back after a break. This is FRESH AIR.

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GROSS: My guest is Robert Draper, a writer at large for The New York Times Magazine. And his current article is about Scavino.

So do you read the president's tweets differently now that you've written about his social media director?

DRAPER: Yes. I mean, now when I read it, I read it the way I listened to when I was covering the Bush presidency, or for that matter, the Obama presidency and listen to their speeches. I would hear a turn of phrase that sounded like something that Michael Gerson or Jon Favreau would have written. And now when I look at a tweet, I'll see three or four examples of what it is that makes James Comey a liar, and I'll realize that...

GROSS: And worthy of jail.

DRAPER: Yeah, and worthy of jail. And I'll say to myself, that's Scavino. When I'll see, you know, something that is poorly phrased, that sounds more like Trump's loopy discursiveness, I'll say, that's one Scavino didn't see. That's a Trump original. And so yeah, it's - I can't say with a hundred percent accuracy that I have cracked the code and deciphered every single tweet of Trump's. But it is, you know, clear now that the collaborative process between him and Scavino has certain guideposts to it, and that if you follow those, you have a sense of what Dan Scavino's value is to the president.

GROSS: My understanding is that although President Trump uses Twitter so much, that he's actually not very computer literate. He doesn't go online. He doesn't email. Is that true?

DRAPER: Yes, that's true. And that's a remarkable irony, isn't it? I mean, Trump has never - he claims - and I think it's true - has never emailed in his life. I don't think he has an email address. He does not go on the Internet to read Breitbart. He has people who do that for him, but he doesn't do it himself. And so it's a rather remarkable peculiarity that someone who is, in so many ways, Internet illiterate would, in fact, be this juju master of social media. And, you know, he - again, he doesn't spend a lot of time doing sophisticated things on Twitter either. He just recognizes it as the mouthpiece that it is, and he recognizes its reach, and he can feel the response.

The response to him is tangible both in the form of, you know, people who like and retweet and also to - and also measured by how it impacts the news, how it drives the content of the news. And so, yeah, that a guy who, like, is never on a computer, doesn't know how to do it, just basically dictates it would nonetheless be the sort of the - you know, have the pre-eminent social media page of our time is, you know - is an incredible irony.

GROSS: Since Scavino and Trump met when Scavino was Trump's golf caddy years ago, I just want to mention that the photo at the top of Scavino's Twitter page is a photo of Scavino and Trump in a golf cart.

DRAPER: Yeah, that's right. No, I mean, Scavino does not shy from the - you know, the narrative - his own narrative - of how they met, and he believes that, you know, first of all, being a caddy is a noble undertaking, secondly, that it is a virtuous thing that Scavino rose up in the ranks from that point. And in some ways, though, you know, the White House people have plead with me or directed me to refrain in my story from suggesting that Scavino is just basically a gopher, there is a caddy aspect to him and his relationship with Trump that carries on well past the golf course. So there's a lot that's emblematic about that. But the other thing...

GROSS: Can you explain what you mean there?

DRAPER: Yeah, yeah, yeah, what I mean by that is that - I mean, he still does what's asked of him, I mean, it's - whether it is just being the body man for Trump or being at Trump's side. Trump will ask him a question - you know, the same as he would on a golf course - of, you know, what do you think is the most appropriate way to drive this particular putt, you know, this particular shot? He'll ask him, you know, what'd you think of that meeting? What'd you think of this guy and what he just said? You know, what do you think of this speech they want me to give? What do you think of the new chief of staff? And Scavino will tell him. Now, let's just say, you know, Trump asks those same questions to virtual strangers. He asks them to people, you know, in the press, so Dan Scavino is not by any means the decider on personnel judgments, but he does, in the main, whatever Trump wants him to do. And in that sense, he was then and still is a kind of caddy.

GROSS: Robert Draper, thank you so much for coming back to FRESH AIR.

DRAPER: Thanks for having me.

GROSS: Robert Draper's New York Times Magazine article, "The Man Behind The President's Tweets," is on the Times website and will be published in Sunday's paper. After we take a short break, our TV critic David Bianculli will review the return of "The Handmaid's Tale" and "Westworld." This is FRESH AIR.

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