WASHINGTON – On a quiet Saturday morning at Camp David this fall, President Donald Trump picked up an iPhone and composed a series of tweets that cut through the tranquility of the wooded retreat like a digital chainsaw.
In nearly a dozen Twitter messages posted before breakfast, the president skewered House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, lashed out at a Democratic lawmaker central to the impeachment effort, described Hillary Clinton as "sick," and tried to dismiss the inquiries into his dealings with Ukraine as "corrupt" and "garbage."
"We should all work together to clean up these hazardous waste and homeless sites before the whole city rots away," Trump wrote about homelessness in San Francisco. Then he shifted to a favorite target. "Pelosi must work on this mess and turn her District around!"
In the weeks and months leading up to Wednesday's historic vote in the House to impeach the president, Trump tweeted more than ever before, and his messages became more negative, according to a USA TODAY analysis of more than 8,200 posts between his inauguration and early December.
In 2017, 14.9% of the words in Trump's tweets had a negative connotation, according to USA TODAY's analysis of tweets compiled by the website Factba.se. That crept up to 16.4% by December 2019. Meanwhile, the share of positive words fell from 24.5% to 19.9%.
The change has been especially pronounced this fall as the impeachment effort got underway. The share of words with a negative connotation rose from just under 15% in August to more than 19% in October.
The proportion of words in Trump's tweets that convey anger has also increased. In his first year in office, under 7% of words had an angry connotation. This year, it rose to about 9%, and almost 10% in October.
Meanwhile, the share of words conveying trust, joy and anticipation are down since Trump's first days in office.
The changes have occurred as he battles Democrats over his impeachment and seeks to shape public opinion ahead of an expected Senate trial to determine whether he will be removed from office. That trial is expected to begin in January; Trump is widely expected to be acquitted in the Republican-held chamber.
Twitter fingers: Trump sets Twitter record as White House fights impeachment
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"The president is on the defense given the impeachment hearings, and once again he has turned to social media to support his agenda," said Jennifer Grygiel, a Syracuse University communications professor. "It is not surprising that his tone has turned more aggressive [as] he seeks to discredit those who are investigating his actions."
White House officials and Trump allies dismissed the analysis, saying the president is only responding to an environment in Washington that has become toxic with impeachment.
Punching back, one tweet at a time
Trump traveled to Camp David in late October to celebrate the 10-year wedding anniversary of his daughter Ivanka Trump and Jared Kushner, both of whom are senior White House advisers.
He posted more than two dozen messages to Twitter the following day, defending disgraced former national security adviser Michael Flynn, slamming the investigation into his dealings with Ukraine, and touting GOP candidates across the country.
‘Pathetic … Sleepy Joe Biden’
So pathetic to see Sleepy Joe Biden, who with his son, Hunter, and to the detriment of the American Taxpayer, has ripped off at least two countries for millions of dollars, calling for my impeachment - and I did nothing wrong. Joe’s Failing Campaign gave him no other choice!— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) October 9, 2019
"The Ukraine investigation is just as Corrupt and Fake as all of the other garbage that went on before it," he wrote, a reference to special counsel Robert Mueller's probe into Russian interference in the 2016 election.
"The Fake Washington Post keeps doing phony stories, with zero sources, that I am concerned with the Impeachment scam. I am not because I did nothing wrong," he tweeted later.
The top emotion in his tweets that day was trust, according to the analysis, followed by anger and anticipation.
No politician is more closely associated with Twitter than Trump, who took to the platform early to skewer critics and reward allies as a New York businessman, former reality TV star and eventual presidential candidate. Including retweets, he has posted more than 13,500 messages to his 68 million followers since he took office.
He uses Twitter to test campaign themes, build his brand, respond to criticism – and create suspense, illustrated by the number of tweets that score high for anticipation.
In his first two years in office, roughly 13% of the words in Trump's tweets conveyed anticipation, according to the analysis. By this October, it was below 11%.
Saif Mohammad created the lexicon used in USA TODAY's analysis. A senior research scientist at Canada's National Research Council, Mohammad said he set out to create the largest library of words that are associated with emotions.
For example, the word "abyss" is associated with negativity and fear. The word "academic" has a positive connotation and is associated with trust. Some words convey several emotions, while others have none.
Mohammad's library has been used to investigate cyberbullying and to inform stock trades. One limitation of this type of analysis: It doesn't account for context.
Dissembling, distracting or discrediting
Trump is tweeting more this year than in the past. In October, he posted more than 1,000 tweets and retweets, an average of 33 per day and more than any month of his term. On Dec. 12, the president posted more than 120 messages, the most prolific day of his presidency.
Nations must ‘protect human life’
All civilized nations must join together to protect human life and the sacred right of our citizens to live in safety and in peace.— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) May 23, 2017
That increase reflects another trend: Trump is retweeting more than he used to, often in rapid succession. Half of his tweets in November were retweets, compared to 20% in January.
Brian Ott, a Texas Tech University communications professor, said Trump's tweets fall into three categories: dissembling, distracting or discrediting.
Dissembling, Ott said, includes the conspiracy theories Trump embraces, including one he used to rise to national prominence: the debunked "birther" theory that claims former President Barack Obama wasn't born in the U.S. Discrediting tweets, Ott said, attack people Trump perceives as a threat.
Those categories are still applicable, Ott said, but with impeachment the proportions have changed.
"As President Trump has been backed into a political corner ... he has increasingly moved away from the technique of distraction," said Ott, who co-wrote a book this year analyzing the president's tweets. "Since he is no longer able to change the news narrative away from impeachment, he has amplified the other two."
White House aides wouldn't discuss the particulars of Trump's tweeting habits, such as how often he writes them himself and whether he consults staff first.
A White House spokesman dismissed the analysis.
Opponents bent on ‘subverting Democracy’
The president’s explanations about his interactions with Ukraine often receive high negative scores, including this one. This tweet quotes former Fox News host Bill O’Reilly, and the president’s own words amplify the negativity.
“This isn’t about Ukraine. This isn’t about Impeachment. This is about subverting Democracy!” @BillOReilly So true, and led by angry and dishonest people who hate themselves, and must hate our Country!— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) November 12, 2019
"President Trump’s use of technology to communicate directly with the American people should be praised, not criticized," spokesman Judd Deere said. "Instead of obsessing over tone and lexicon, the media could cover his unprecedented accomplishments."
Matt Braynard, a data director for Trump’s 2016 campaign, said it's impossible to draw conclusions about sentiment based on a mathematical formula. But, he said, if Trump’s tweets are getting more negative, it could be because of the current political environment.
The president has always portrayed himself as under siege. That has only become more intense since he was accused of withholding aid to Ukraine to pressure the country to open an investigation into 2020 presidential contender Joe Biden.
Trump, Braynard said, has never been someone who takes a hit without punching back. Lately there have been a lot of hits.
"When you’re in that environment, naturally, the president has to respond," said Braynard, who founded a GOP turnout group called Look Ahead America.
Trust, not anger, is dominant in Trump's tweets
The tweets that get the most attention are those in which Trump lashes out at people, such as his attacks over the summer on four freshman congresswomen of color known as the "Squad." Or his description of now-deceased Rep. Elijah Cummings' Baltimore congressional district as a "rat and rodent infested mess."
Both drew sharp criticism and charges of racism.
Though Trump's tweets have become more negative, they still contain more words with a positive connotation than negative, the analysis found. The prevailing emotion of the words in Trump's tweets, according to the review, wasn't anger or fear, but trust. The second-highest: anticipation.
Joy ranked third, followed by anger and fear.
"MEXICO IS PAYING FOR THE WALL through the many billions of dollars a year that the U.S.A. is saving through the new Trade Deal, the USMCA, that will replace the horrendous NAFTA Trade Deal, which has so badly hurt our Country," Trump wrote last year in a tweet that scored high for trust. "Mexico & Canada will also thrive – good for all!"
Republican candidate in Michigan ‘is a star’
WOW, John James is making headway in Michigan. We are bringing jobs back to the State, and the People of Michigan appreciate it. Debbie Stabenow has been no help, if anything, a major hindrance. John James is a star, I hope the voters see it. Polls are tightening!— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) October 16, 2018
In fact, U.S. taxpayers are paying to replace sections of barrier along the Mexican border. Those sections existed under the Obama administration, but Trump says they were in disrepair. The president suggests the possibility of economic benefit from a trade agreement is the same as "paying for the wall." Even if that were true, the new trade agreement was not in effect at the time Trump was tweeting about it, and still isn't.
Trump's tweets hit a peak of positivity in October 2018, according to the analysis. That month, the Senate confirmed Supreme Court Justice Brett Kavanaugh after a contentious debate, and the president announced he had wrapped up negotiations on the trade deal with Mexico and Canada.
That month, more than a quarter of words in Trump's tweets had a positive connotation, compared to about 15% associated with negativity.
Grygiel, the Syracuse professor, said Trump sometimes embraces messages and memes that are ostensibly positive but may not read that way to his opponents.
Trump’s 2016 campaign slogan, Make America Great Again, has a positive connotation for his supporters. Others, including former President Bill Clinton, have described it as racist – a dog-whistle reference to a time when America was whiter.
“Positive sentiment and framing,” Grygiel said, “does not necessarily mean that the message is positive.”
Decorum vs. victory
Trump's use of words with an angry connotation has increased since his first year in the White House. That change was most pronounced from 2017 to 2018, when the share of angry words rose from about 6% in December of 2017 to over 10% the following fall. This year, the share of angry words has registered between 7% and 10%, the analysis found.
"My lawyers should sue the Democrats and Shifty Adam Schiff for fraud!" Trump tweeted in October as Schiff, the Democratic chairman of the House Intelligence Committee, led hearings looking into Trump's dealings with Ukraine.
Trump attacks senator during Kavanaugh hearings
Senator Feinstein and the Democrats held the letter for months, only to release it with a bang after the hearings were OVER - done very purposefully to Obstruct & Resist & Delay. Let her testify, or not, and TAKE THE VOTE!— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) September 21, 2018
"Bad lawyer and fraudster Michael Cohen said under sworn testimony that he never asked for a Pardon," Trump tweeted in March about his former personal attorney — another post that scored high for anger. "He also badly wanted to work at the White House. He lied!"
Tweets with angry words peaked in the few weeks before the 2018 midterm election in which Democrats reclaimed control of the House.
Trump – and politicians before him – often use anger to gin up supporters and ensure they come out to vote, experts said.
"Anger is a well-known emotional antecedent to action," said John V. Kane, an assistant professor at New York University who studies political psychology and behavior.
If Trump supporters believe his presidency is being threatened, Kane said, they're more likely to become angry themselves, less willing to consider contradictory information, and more willing to engage – sometimes in rash behavior. That might make for quick political gains, but it can sow long-term problems.
"Obviously, this more resembles a recipe for socio-political disaster than for constructive democratic debate," Kane said. "Consciously or not, Trump has stress-tested the extent to which members of the public actually value qualities like bipartisanship and decorum over partisan victory."
How we reported this story
To analyze the emotional sentiment behind Trump’s tweets, USA TODAY used the NRC Emotion Lexicon, the leading dictionary of the emotions associated with words. The lexicon of 14,000 words shows their positive or negative connotation and associations with eight emotions: joy, fear, anticipation, anger, sadness, trust, disgust and surprise.
That lexicon was compared to a compilation of Trump's tweets, compiled by Factba.se, beginning the day he was inaugurated in January 2017 and ending Dec. 5. The analysis excluded retweets, deleted tweets and messages under 10 words. Each tweet was scored based on the number of words in the lexicon and their associated emotions. For example, a tweet with six words in the lexicon, two of which have a positive connotation, would be scored as containing 33% positive terms. Those figures were grouped by week.
This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: Donald Trump's tweets get negative as impeachment, 2020 election loom