Decision on whether or not to reinstate former president had been much anticipated
In news that will celebrated by supporters of Mr Trump as enthusiastically as it is condemned by his critics, the tech billionaire who is in the process of buying the social media network, said the initial decision in January 2021 had been incorrect.
“I think it was a morally bad decision, to be clear, and foolish in the extreme,” he said at a Future of the Car event hosted in London by the Financial Times.
He added: “I do think it was not correct to ban Donald Trump. I think that was a mistake – it alienated a large part of the country and did not ultimately result in Donald Trump not having a voice.”
He said the decision to ban Mr Trump from Twitter, taken after the 6 January riot at the US Capitol, did not silence the former president’s voice entirely. Rather it amplified his views among people on the political right, Mr Musk said.
Mr Trump’s tweets were rarely elegant, and often fell like blows from a cudgel. Frequently he would misspell things, only to delete them and have a second go. Other times he let the errors remain, perhaps knowing they would irritate people who thought a president should not be speaking in what were often vulgar, bullying terms, but that if he had to, then at least he should use the correct grammar.
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Yet, he knew very well the power of those tweets, and relished being able to communicate directly with supporters, and enemies, without the filter of the media. He had close to 90 million followers when he was banned, and was the eighth-most followed account, behind the likes of Barack Obama and Katie Perry.
But it was the power and influence of his social media voice that resulted in his lifetime ban.
In the aftermath of the 2020 presidential election, the then-president used social media to repeatedly make false claims that the election had been rigged in favour of Joe Biden, and that he was the genuine victor.
Under pressure from critics who said he was using his account to spread dangerous disinformation, Twitter had already been adding a “get the facts’” warning to some of Mr Trump’s tweets. The number of such warning flags increased.
He was locked out his account on 6 January 2001 for 12 hours after describing as “patriots” the hundreds of supporters who stormed the US Capitol in an effort to stop the joint houses certifying the victory of Mr Biden.
A few days later, Twitter said Mr Trump’s account was being “permanently suspended… due to the risk of further incitement of violence”. It said the decision was made “after close review of recent Tweets from the @realDonaldTrump account”.
He was also banned from Facebook and Instagram, though they were turned into suspensions that in theory ought to end in January 2023.
There was no immediate reaction from Mr Trump on Tuesday.
Responding to a question about the reversal of Mr Trump’s ban, White House press secretary Jen Psaki said it is a decision for a private sector company to make on who will or will not be allowed on their platforms. But she added the Biden administration wanted online platforms to protect freedom of speech while also ensuring they were not forums for disinformation.
Mr Trump had previously said he had no intention of rejoining Twitter even if his account was reinstated, telling Fox News last month that he would instead focus on his own platform, Truth Social, which has been mired in problems since its launch earlier this year.
“I am not going on Twitter. I am going to stay on Truth,” Mr Trump told the network. “I hope Elon buys Twitter because he’ll make improvements to it and he is a good man, but I am going to be staying on Truth.”
Yet many commentators have suggested Mr Trump, 75, would find it hard to stay away, especially if he perceived it to be increasingly friendly to views like his, and especially if he decides to make another presidential bid in 2024.
Mr Musk, 50, the CEO of Tesla, is in the process of buying Twitter for $44bn (£36bn). He has said he wants to promote free speech on the platform.
At the event in London Mr Musk said Mr Trump had been denied a voice as a result of the decision taken 18 months ago.
“So I think this may end up being frankly worse than having a single forum where everyone can debate,” he said. “I guess the answer is that I would reverse the permanent ban.”
Twitter founder Jack Dorsey said he agreed with Mr Musk.
“There are exceptions (CSE, illegal behaviour, spam or network manipulation, etc), but generally permanent bans are a failure of ours and don’t work, which I wrote about here after the event (and called for a resilient social media protocol),” he tweeted.
Additional reporting by Reuters