President Donald Trump pushed back Friday against accusations of stoking violence after he provoked outrage -- and an unprecedented sanction from Twitter -- by tweeting: "When the looting starts, the shooting starts."
Twitter for the first time hid one of Trump's tweets, saying it broke rules on "glorifying violence" when he tweeted about the protests, looting and arson rocking the northern US city of Minneapolis in the aftermath of an unarmed black man's death during his arrest by a police officer.
In the overnight tweet, Trump called the people rioting "THUGS" and said he'd told the state governor "the Military is with him all the way. Any difficulty and we will assume control."
"When the looting starts, the shooting starts. Thank you!" he continued.
Those last words, which echoed a refrain heard during the racially charged civil rights era in the US south, prompted a torrent of complaints, as well as Twitter's extraordinary decision to restrict public access to the tweet.
"He is calling for violence against American citizens during a moment of pain for so many. I'm furious," Trump's Democratic rival in the November presidential election, Joe Biden, said.
Others homed in on what they saw as racism in an apparent threat to have black protesters shot.
"After stoking the fires of white supremacy and racism your entire presidency, you have the nerve to feign moral superiority before threatening violence? 'When the looting starts the shooting starts'??? We will vote you out in November," tweeted pop superstar Taylor Swift.
Trump responded later Friday on Twitter with a convoluted statement suggesting that he'd been referring not to authorities shooting protesters, but to criminal shooting incidents that had already taken place on the sidelines of the unrest.
"Looting leads to shooting, and that's why a man was shot and killed in Minneapolis on Wednesday night -- or look at what just happened in Louisville with 7 people shot. I don't want this to happen, and that's what the expression put out last night means," Trump tweeted.
- War with Twitter -
Twitter's decision to hide the Trump tweet was the latest salvo in an ever-growing row between the Republican and the giant social media platform that he has turned into an integral part of his presidency, with 80 million followers.
Trump is furious that earlier this week Twitter tagged two of his tweets with fact checks, indicating that they were misleading -- another unprecedented measure.
On Thursday, Trump responded by signing an executive order in the Oval Office seeking to transform the way social media companies are regulated.
And on Friday, right after Twitter hid his "shooting" tweet, the official White House account thumbed its nose by reposting it.
This time, Twitter responded by saying that while the rules had been violated again, the company "determined that it may be in the public's interest for the Tweet to remain accessible."
The White House defended Trump, saying he "clearly condemned" violence, but his social media director and Twitter feed manager, Dan Scavino, had a more earthy response to the controversy.
"Twitter is full of shit -- more and more people are beginning to get it," he wrote on Twitter.
One immediate result of the blow-up between the social media-savvy president and the high-profile company has been to knock the coronavirus pandemic and the recent milestone of 100,000 American virus deaths out of the headlines.
It also ties in with one of Trump's major reelection themes: that despite being a billionaire White House incumbent with a Republican majority in the Senate, he is an outsider fighting a left-wing establishment.
- End to self-regulation? -
Trump's executive order seeks to remove social media platforms' decades-long freedom from liability for content posted. Instead of being allowed to self-regulate, this would treat the companies more like traditional publishers, open to government regulation and court challenges over false or harmful material.
Trump told reporters at the White House he acted because big tech firms "have had unchecked power to censor, restrict, edit, shape, hide, alter any form of communication between private citizens or large public audiences."
"We can't let this continue to happen," Trump said.
Ironically, his order could spur companies like Twitter to impose stricter guidelines for users, eventually curbing social media firebrands like Trump himself, who regularly goes online to insult people and support conspiracy theories.
How much will change in the near term is unclear, given the legal and political challenges facing Trump's move.