Can the President Legally Delete a Tweet?


Donald Trump misspelled "honored" in a tweet the day after being inaugurated. He deleted it shortly after and replaced it with a correct tweet. Screenshot by HowStuffWorks
Donald Trump misspelled "honored" in a tweet the day after being inaugurated. He deleted it shortly after and replaced it with a correct tweet. Screenshot by HowStuffWorks

Donald Trump loves to tweet. When he was campaigning for president, there were no rules barring Trump from deleting or changing tweets. Those rules changed once he took the oath of office. That's because now-President Trump's tweets are part of public property, which means he can't destroy them, or alter them. Or so legal experts believe.

Yet that didn't stop the president from deleting a tweet with a misspelling of the word honored soon after he was sworn in as president. Although he wrote the same tweet, correcting its spelling and tweeting it again from the @POTUS account, experts say he may have violated federal law — specifically, the Presidential Records Act of 1978.

Until Congress passed that law, presidents were free to do what they wanted with their letters, notes, diaries and other correspondence. In fact, for nearly two centuries, historical custom dictated that the president of the United States owned his written communications. That all changed during the 1970s in the wake of the Watergate scandal.

The 1978 act forever changed the legal ownership of the president's and vice president's papers. No longer were these documents private property; they were now publicly owned. The law created a set of strict rules that presidents and their staff are supposed to follow when dealing with material related to the "constitutional, statutory or other official or ceremonial duties of the President."

Under the law, the federal government is charged with maintaining ownership and control of presidential records. The legislation also forced the executive to preserve, or archive, all presidential correspondence and other materials. This, experts say, also includes tweets, Facebook posts, emails and other social media correspondence, thanks in part to the Presidential and Federal Records Act Amendments of 2014 signed into law on November 26, 2014 by President Barack Obama, which modernized the law to specifically focus "more directly on electronic records."

The amendment also specifically empowers "the National Archives to safeguard original and classified records from unauthorized removal," and the Archives has said posted tweets are public records, but has not stated whether the law applies to deleted or edited tweets. 

President Obama's staff treated his tweets as presidential correspondence. The originals were auto-archived even though corrected tweets were sent out. Moreover, Obama sent out tweets through the official @POTUS handle, which Trump can now use. Trump, however, almost always chooses instead to tweet through his private Twitter handle @realDonaldTrump, and then retweets those original posts via the @POTUS handle.