President Donald Trump’s deep-diving social media operation would have made him aware that plans for his supporters to try to storm and occupy the US Capitol were in the works long before he took to the stage at last week’s “Save America” rally, former campaign and White House officials say.
In the months leading up to Twitter executives banning him from using his preferred social media platform, the president’s nearly 90 million followers were on the receiving end of a firehose of content from conspiracy theorists, white nationalists, and adherents of the QAnon conspiracy theory. Especially after his loss to President-elect Joe Biden, Trump’s feed was a consistent source of retweets for accounts promoting various baseless theories which purported to explain his failure to win re-election as the work of a shadowy cabal.
Such synergies played a major role in bring together the Washington DC riots that shocked the world on 6 January, according to Jared Holt, a visiting research fellow at the Atlantic Council’s Digital Forensics Research Lab who tracks far-right extremists and propaganda.
“A big reason that a lot of extremist groups and individuals were present on the ground on Wednesday… [is] that for two months, President Trump's social media feeds were echoing the same kind, if not the exact same disinformation that animates these extremist movements,” Holt said.
Much of those efforts to curate what was a steady stream of disinformation that experts say radicalized many of his followers was the work of one of the few remaining 2016 campaign veterans still in Trump’s orbit: Dan Scavino Jr, the onetime Trump golf caddy who now serves as the White House Deputy Chief of Staff for Communications.
According to one person with knowledge of the relevant period of Trump’s life and the events therein, Scavino was never really in Trump’s inner circle until 2015, when he offered to handle the reality TV star-turned-presidential candidate’s social media presence.
After Trump shocked the world by besting Hillary Clinton in 2016, Scavino followed him to a similar role at the White House. Since then, he has remained one of the president’s closest advisors, and was even one of two White House aides to accompany Trump to Walter Reed National Military Medical Center last October, during his brief hospitalization with Covid-19.
“They are very close and intimate,” said one Trump confidante who worked on the 2016 campaign and in the White House.
Though his title implies a traditional messaging and media relations role in the mould of Bill Shine, the former Fox News executive who was his predecessor in that particular role, Scavino’s exact job description has long been more amorphous. But according to Trumpworld insiders, Scavino occupied a rarefied place in the president’s orbit as one of the only people with access to what was once the most powerful Twitter account in the world, a megaphone which could change the world’s conversations in 280 characters or less.
To make use of that megaphone, the 44-year-old and the staff he oversaw as the head of the White House Office of Digital Strategy cast a sprawling net into the deepest reaches of pro-Trump online communities. In doing so, he drew content from hordes of extremely online Trump superfans, many of whom supplied a steady stream of content for him to pick and choose from.
“He’s the president’s online eyes and ears,” said one former White House staffer, who described Scavino’s work curating Trump’s personal Twitter feed as “like a one-man band” even though he also sat atop the organizational chart of the Trump administration’s social media team.
That team, another former White House and Trump campaign official said, has “their fingers on the pulse of any and everything that is unfolding [online] in Trumpworld.”
The ex-White House and campaign insider, who has known both Scavino and the president for years, said there was no way that Scavino and the Trump social media operation would not have been aware of plans circulating online to storm the Capitol. That’s because the operation closely monitored the web’s darkest corners, ranging from mainstream sites such as Twitter, Facebook, and Reddit, to fringe message boards like 4chan and 8chan (now called 8kun) to TheDonald.win, an offshoot from a banned Reddit community dedicated to rabidly supporting all things Trump.
“He has a full staff that supports his efforts, so he has a full digital team at the White House, a full digital team at the RNC… and the PACs, and don't forget the Trump family still has on staff digital folks that he trained…. so he has at his disposal 18 to 22 people to work with him,” they explained.
Holt, the online extremism researcher, noted that it is unlikely that Trumpworlders who curate the president’s feeds could go looking for the sort of content they routinely promoted and at the same time remain unaware of plans for last week’s riot.
“If they are in these communities. I don't know how they could have missed this chatter. It was all over the place,” he said.
The former White House and campaign official, who has known the president and many in his inner circle for years, said Scavino “has the president’s ear” and as such would undoubtedly have passed what he was learning online.
Moreover, they posited that his knowledge of pro-Trump online communities would have informed the ghostwriting tasks he performed on Trump’s Twitter account — including a tweet attacking Vice President Mike Pence, sent just as rioters were beginning to break Capitol Police lines and enter the building, chanting “Hang Mike Pence”.
“He is closer to Donald than his sons and he has more intimate knowledge of Donald's thoughts. And he has the respect of the president — that's what makes him dangerous,” they said. “That's why he will blindly send messages out that would incite insurrection or sedition. That's why he has no problem doing it.”
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