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Donald Trump insists he’s not interested in returning to Twitter after Elon Musk buyout. Instead, he says he will continue building his own alternative site, Truth Social.NICHOLAS KAMM/AFP/Getty Images

With Elon Musk vowing to dial back Twitter’s moderation policies if his US$44-billion deal to buy the social-media site closes, all eyes in the U.S. capital have turned to the app’s most famous former denizen.

But ex-president Donald Trump insists he’s not interested in returning to the site that banned him. Instead, he says he will continue building his own alternative site, Truth Social. “I am not going on Twitter, I am going to stay on Truth,” he said in a statement to Fox News. “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.”

Whether Mr. Trump can stick to this pledge is an open question.

For one, Mr. Musk’s loosening of Twitter’s rules may torpedo Truth Social’s appeal to Trump supporters as a place that won’t suspend them for spreading disinformation or making offensive comments. The app is already struggling with a delayed rollout and lack of users. Mr. Trump himself has posted on it just once.

For another, Mr. Trump still has not been able to recapture the amount of public attention he commanded before he was permanently banned from Twitter in January, 2021. While the app is relatively niche – it has fewer than one-seventh as many active users as Facebook, for instance – it is heavily frequented by journalists and politicians. This offered Mr. Trump a way to shape political narratives and news stories as he blasted out updates to his 88.7 million followers.

“I feel more confident that Trump will go back on Twitter if allowed than that he will run for president again,” said Michael Cornfield, a political scientist at George Washington University. “I’m almost positive he will go back on.”

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Prof. Cornfield, who studies the use of social media to gather political data, cited another reason Mr. Trump will want to return to tweeting: It’s a valuable way for him and his team to get information about supporters and hit them up for donations.

Over the past year, Mr. Trump has continued to hold rallies across the country to get his message out. He also puts out numerous daily media statements that adopt the tone he used on Twitter. Some deride Senate Republican Leader Mitch McConnell as an “old broken-down Crow” for not going along with Mr. Trump’s efforts to overturn the 2020 election result, for instance. Others dub last year’s bipartisan infrastructure legislation an “Unfrastructure Bill.”

But even Mr. Trump’s fellow Republicans apparently don’t see the rallies and frequent e-mails as offering him the same reach Twitter did.

A parade of mostly anonymous Republican insiders told the news website Politico that they hoped Mr. Trump would not return to Twitter. His rejoining the site, they said, would distract from their efforts to campaign on bread-and-butter issues such as high inflation ahead of midterm congressional elections. Instead, they would be forced to repeatedly respond to Mr. Trump’s false claims that the 2020 election was rigged. This misinformation is what got him banned from Twitter following the Jan. 6, 2021, attack on the U.S. Capitol by his supporters.

An upcoming book about the end of Mr. Trump’s administration, This Will Not Pass, quotes Republican House Leader Kevin McCarthy as musing privately that he wished Twitter would take away the accounts of the most extreme members of his caucus.

Publicly, however, most of the party’s loudest voices have decried such suspensions and cheered Mr. Musk’s pending takeover.

“WELCOME BACK FIRST AMENDMENT!” Jody Hice, a Georgia congressman and 2020 election conspiracist, tweeted in reference to the part of the U.S. Constitution that guarantees freedom of speech. “Free speech is making a comeback,” said Jim Jordan, one of Mr. Trump’s most stalwart congressional loyalists.

Democratic legislators, meanwhile, mostly used the opportunity to criticize Mr. Musk over his tax bill.

“Elon Musk just bought Twitter for $44B. That’s less than 17% of his estimated $264.6B net worth. Billionaires like Musk pay lower tax rates than firefighters, teachers, and nurses,” Congresswoman Bonnie Watson Coleman tweeted.

Mr. Musk, the head of Tesla and SpaceX and the world’s richest person, has cited his desire to stop Twitter from censoring people as a prime reason for buying it. He has also promised to make public the algorithm it uses to determine how much prominence to give tweets, a sore spot for conservatives who accuse the site of giving them too little exposure.

“Free speech is the bedrock of a functioning democracy, and Twitter is the digital town square where matters vital to the future of humanity are debated,” Mr. Musk said in a statement announcing his deal with Twitter’s board of directors. Shareholders still have to sign off on the purchase before it becomes final.

All of this may not actually be mutually exclusive with Truth Social, Prof. Cornfield said. In fact, he expected Mr. Trump could even use a return to Twitter to push people toward his own social-media service.

“If Twitter lets Trump back on, he will use Twitter to promote traffic to Truth Social. Every single tweet will have a link to it,” Prof. Cornfield said. “He’s both building his media empire and he’s trying to solidify his political base, and trying to frame the debate for American politics.”

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