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The Trump vs. Scarborough Twitter battle has a ton of collateral damage

Desperate to change the conversation away from the ongoing devastation of coronavirus, President Trump has spent the last few weeks hammering away at one of his favorite hobbies: smearing MSNBC host Joe Scarborough on Twitter. In particular, Trump has been boosting a conspiracy theory involving the 2001 death of Lori Klausutis, who worked in Scarborough’s office when he was serving as a Republican congressman for Florida. Scarborough was in Washington, D.C., when Klausutis died; she was working in a Florida regional office at the time. Her death was ruled to be an accident caused by an undiagnosed heart condition, but that hasn’t stopped Trump from tweeting that "Concast," his nickname for MSNBC’s parent company Comcast, "should open up a long overdue Florida Cold Case against Psycho Joe Scarborough." He’s tweeted similar things about Scarborough several times since.

Recently, Timothy J. Klausutis, Lori’s widower, wrote a letter to Twitter CEO Jack Dorsey asking him to delete Trump’s tweets. "Nearly 19 years ago, my wife, who had an undiagnosed heart condition, fell and hit her head on her desk at work. She was found dead the next morning. Her name is Lori Kaye Klausutis and she was 28 years old when she died," Klausutis wrote. "Her passing is the single most painful thing that I have ever had to deal with in my 52 years and continues to haunt her parents and sister."

Klausutis added that the family has dealt with “a constant barrage of falsehoods, half-truths, innuendo and conspiracy theories since the day she died.” He wrote to Dorsey that he’s motivated now to protect his wife’s memory "as I would have protected her in life," adding, "The president's tweet that suggests that Lori was murdered — without evidence (and contrary to the official autopsy) — is a violation of Twitter's community rules and terms of service.”

“An ordinary user like me would be banished from the platform for such a tweet,” Klausutis pointed out, “but I am only asking that these tweets be removed."

Twitter wasn’t having it. In a statement to CNN, the company declared that it wouldn’t be removing the posts, despite the apparent terms of service violation.

"We are deeply sorry about the pain these statements, and the attention they are drawing, are causing the family," the statement read. "We've been working to expand existing product features and policies so we can more effectively address things like this going forward, and we hope to have those changes in place shortly." The statement did not expand on what exactly these features might be, nor did it address the tweets’ apparent violation of the Terms of Service.

On Tuesday, Trump addressed the controversy on Twitter. “The opening of a Cold Case against Psycho Joe Scarborough was not a Donald Trump original thought, this has been going on for years, long before I joined the chorus,” he wrote, apparently seeking to exonerate himself for propagating the theory from the Twitter account of the American president. He continued: “I find Joe to be a total nut job, and I knew him well, far better than most. So many unanswered and obvious questions, but I won’t bring them up now! Law enforcement eventually will?”

At a press conference Tuesday, White House Press Secretary Kayleigh McEnany responded to a reporter asking whether the president would stop talking about the conspiracy, per the widower’s wishes. "The onus is on Joe Scarborough," she responded, before referencing a 2003 appearance Scarborough made on Don Imus’s radio show where, she said, Scarborough “joked about killing an intern.”

Ultimately, there’s nothing shocking at this point about the president using his massive platform to launch ugly smears at his enemies. Nor is it particularly surprising that a major tech company is refusing to play referee; social media giants thrive based on the notion that they are where world leaders come to speak freely, and de-platforming Trump would undercut that image. Rather, Twitter will continue failing to enforce its policies when it comes to the president, because losing their most powerful user would strike a serious blow to their bottom line and the global perception of their importance. That’s what makes this entire episode so frustrating and demoralizing — everyone involved has obvious motives, and the pain generated by their action and inaction is disproportionately heaped on the family of the dead.