In the months leading to the 2016 presidential election, Democratic voters had a consistent place to look for updates on Hillary Clinton’s campaign: her daughter’s Twitter feed. From reports on her campus visits to FaceTime sessions with supporters, Chelsea Clinton’s tweets were positive, inclusive and unfailingly on message.
“Couldn’t be more proud of my mom and the campaign she’s run,” Chelsea Clinton wrote on Election Day. “Let’s bring it home for her today.”
Things didn’t work out as planned, of course. And after Donald Trump, and not her mother, was sworn in as the country’s 45th president, another side of Chelsea Clinton seemed to emerge.
In recent weeks, she has greeted the Trump era with a more sarcastic and feisty online personality, sharing with her 1.6 million followers her fiercely held political beliefs and sparring with political adversaries in 140-character bursts. Clinton has accused a Trump adviser of spreading misinformation, admonished a Republican congressman for racist comments and pushed the president to speak out in the face of an increase in religiously motivated attacks.
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She has also seemed to step up the number of messages she is sending: According to TweetStats, a tool that tracks posting frequency, Clinton posted 142 tweets in November. In February, she posted over 300, an average of more than 10 a day.
All this has raised questions — and prompted criticism — about Clinton’s political ambitions. If it’s coming from a Clinton, both supporters and critics have wondered, can a tweet ever be just a tweet?
Several people close to Clinton and her family say that yes, this is just tweeting, and no, she is not using it as a strategy to eventually run for office.
Melanne Verveer, who served as Hillary Clinton’s chief of staff when she was first lady, has known Chelsea since she was a girl. Verveer didn’t understand the newfound interest in the youngest Clinton’s political motives, and thinks most observers are jumping to conclusions.
“I think it’s probably natural in some ways for people to think, ‘Well, she’s the next in line’ in a political family,” Verveer said. “But I think that’s reading too much into tweets.”
(Since when has that ever satiated the internet’s thirst for content?)
Liz Robbins, a Washington lobbyist and a close friend of the Clintons, said she was surprised that people just now seemed to notice that Clinton was jumping into the Twitter fray. “It’s like coming late to the movie,” Robbins said.
She does have a point: Clinton has maintained a Twitter account since 2012 and has tweeted more than 5,900 times. Many of those were messages of support for her mother on the campaign trail.
And here is Jen Lee Koss, a friend of Clinton’s since the two were roommates at Oxford: “She’s literally just tweeting like a normal person would tweet.”
There is probably some truth to this “normal person” theory. People who use social media generally enjoy circulating information that aligns with their beliefs. People squabble. And people can certainly find themselves setting off heated discussions about things that don’t really matter, as the bedlam that arose from Clinton’s spinach pancake recipe may suggest.
But Chelsea Clinton is still a Clinton. She may be her own person — a 37-year-old mother of two, an activist and author — she will appear in Dallas on April 23 as part of an “Arts & Letters Live” presentation to discuss her book “It’s Your World: Get Informed, Get Inspired & Get Going!”
But she remains the only child of President Bill Clinton and Hillary Clinton, the first female presidential candidate of a major political party.
Lee Koss, who said she spoke to Clinton daily, said that she may be living up to the expectations that come with this particular political family. Or maybe that is just what her supporters want to see.
“I think a lot of people maybe wonder where the Clinton voice is now,” Lee Koss said. “Maybe people want to hear from her and are clinging to that.”
Mattie Bekink, a friend from Clinton’s days at Stanford, said Clinton’s behavior hadn’t changed much since the election, even if the political world thinks otherwise. These messages now come from a member of the party that lost; lest Clinton forget, people like Kellyanne Conway are willing to remind her, in their own tweets.
“Chelsea hasn’t changed,” Bekink wrote in an email. “The norms of political and social discourse have.”
Referring to a message sent by Rep. Steve King, of Iowa, the Republican congressman whom Clinton criticized, Bekink added: “Even a year ago, I doubt a sitting member of Congress would dare to tweet something blatantly racist and then stand by it.” (Part of a tweet by King read: “We can’t restore our civilization with somebody else’s babies.”)
When asked to provide a 140-character response to speculation over her tweets, Clinton relayed the following over email: “Twitter helps us share what we think is important & helps us raise our voices against efforts to take us back years, decades … or centuries.”
None of the five Clinton friends interviewed for this article thought that any of this necessarily adds up to another Clinton running for office. Clinton, several pointed out, has, for years, swatted down rumors over her political aspirations.
But one Clinton ally did hint that Clinton could have a desire to be a voice for Democratic causes. The ally, Jay S. Jacobs, a prominent New York Democrat, said Clinton was perhaps simply keeping her family’s name in the national conversation while her parents took time off from politics.
“If that’s your mother,” Jacobs said, “and you’ve shared these interests and passions for these things, then there’s no secret motivation that has to necessarily be behind your desire to get out in front and carry on.”
Jacobs added, “That’s what Clintons do, by the way.”
Of course, others would prefer that the Clintons refrain from speaking out. The headlines can be blunt — “God Help Us if Chelsea Clinton Runs for Office,” The New York Post shouted in February. Meghan McCain, a daughter of Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz. (and herself no stranger to the political media glare), was just as unvarnished about the prospect.
“What fresh hell am I living in where I am going to have to sit through Chelsea Clinton running for office?” McCain said recently on Fox News. “The media gives this grown woman with two children a pass. Every step of the way.”
Lee Koss, Clinton’s friend from college, doesn’t understand the intense criticism over a few hundred innocent tweets.
“To the naysayers: It’s Twitter,” Lee Koss said. “Just unfollow.”
Chelsea Clinton in Dallas
- Dallas Museum of Art’s “Arts & Letters Live” series
- April 23
- First United Methodist Church
- 1717 N. Harwood St., Dallas
- 214-922-1200, www.dma.org.