On Thursday morning, President Donald Trump came under fire for describing Joe Scarborough and Mika Brzezinski, the hosts of MSNBC’s Morning Joe, as “Psycho Joe” and “low I.Q. Crazy Mika” and claiming that he declined to spend time with them at Mar-a-Lago around New Year’s Eve and that she was “bleeding badly from a face-lift” at the time.
The President’s tweets — which are considered official presidential statements — quickly drew backlash from Brzezinski herself, Trump’s fellow Republicans and others, many of whom said that a statement like that is “beneath the office,” as Sen. Lindsey Graham put it, and rare in presidential history.
But, in the scope of that history, it’s not necessarily what Trump said that makes his comments unusual, but how he chose to say it. Twitter, in short, allows the President to broadcast to the world the kinds of things that his predecessors said privately, or at least through the filter of the press.
“Presidents make unpleasant remarks about people all of the time, but not publicly,” says Robert Dallek, a presidential historian who has written biographies of Presidents Richard Nixon, Lyndon B. Johnson and John F. Kennedy, “LBJ did, JFK did, Franklin Roosevelt did. If you listen to the Richard Nixon tapes, you’re going to hear some very ugly things about Jews. There was a lot of anger that they [these presidents] had.”
President Harry S. Truman was known for using strong language, too. Joel K. Goldstein, a scholar of the vice-presidency and professor of law at Saint Louis University School of Law, points to a letter that Truman wrote to the Washington Post‘s music critic Paul Hume, who wrote a “lousy” Dec. 6, 1950, review of his daughter Margaret Truman’s singing at Constitution Hall: “It seems to me that you are a frustrated old man who wishes he could have been successful,” the President wrote. “When you write such poppy-cock as was in the back section of the paper you work for, it shows conclusively that you’re off the beam and at least four of your ulcers are at work. Some day I hope to meet you. When that happens you’ll need a new nose, a lot of beefsteak for black eyes.”
In addition, a year after Truman died, TIME reported that he once said he fired Douglas MacArthur as Supreme Commander of Korea simply because he wouldn’t respect his authority, adding, “I didn’t fire him because he was a dumb son of a bitch, although he was.”
Presidential vituperation isn’t a modern phenomenon. For instance, John Adams described the late Alexander Hamilton in an 1806 letter as having been full of “a superabundance of secretions which he could not find Whores enough to draw off.”
But, when Presidents have made even far more mild criticisms public, the backlash has, in the past, been quick.
For instance, Dallek says that JFK, faced with what his administration called “patently false articles” in the New York Herald Tribune, said of the paper that he was “reading more, and enjoying it less” and canceled the White House subscription — only to find himself the target of criticism from those who felt he should show more respect for the role of the media in society. (He later said that he had been wrong to cancel the subscription.) And criticism of individual citizens can get the President in even more hot water, as Barack Obama discovered.
But all of that was before Twitter. Thanks to the President’s unique use of the service, thoughts that were once revealed privately can be easily broadcast to the public — for better or worse. And that does make statements like the President’s “face-lift” tweet a new kind of political discourse.
In fact, not even the controversial President Andrew Jackson, one of Trump’s favorite historical figures, spoke like that publicly, according to Daniel Feller, director of The Papers of Andrew Jackson and a professor of history at the University of Tennessee. “Jackson especially despised criticism of women,” Feller says, “which he thought was cowardly.”
Correction: The original version of this article misstated when Truman wrote a letter to the Washington Post’s music critic. It was in 1950, not during his last month in office in 1953.