A slew of Inauguration Day tweets targeting President Trump’s youngest child, Barron Trump, misfired spectacularly as Republicans and Democrats alike scrambled to the 10-year-old boy’s defense, prompting apologies Monday along with reminders that presidential children, even in the age of no-holds-barred social media, are viewed as off-limits.
Chelsea Clinton, who knows better than most, having spent eight years in the White House starting at age 12, admonished the hecklers, saying on Facebook, “Barron Trump deserves the chance every child does—to be a kid.”
“I think all of us need to agree collectively that this child’s life and all of the things about him need to stay off-limits,” said Andrea Billups, a former People magazine and Washington Times reporter who teaches journalism at the University of Florida.
“He did not run for office. He did not sign up for this, and he’s 10 years old,” Ms. Billups said. “It is unconscionable that people would call this little boy out in the public space, particularly those people who are opposed to the Trump presidency.”
Bustle magazine’s Jessica Lahitou, who made it clear she is no fan of the Republican president, wrote an article chastising the celebrities and others taking online potshots at Barron Trump.
“As a mother, this breaks my heart. I cannot imagine the immaturity and meanness necessary to drag someone’s child into an adult dislike of a political leader,” she said.
Some of those who ran afoul of the leave-the-kids-alone rule quickly retreated. Comedy writer Katie Rich of NBC’s “Saturday Night Live” was suspended — and apologized Monday — for her post saying Barron “will be this country’s first homeschool shooter.”
“I sincerely apologize for the insensitive tweet,” said Ms. Rich, who was hired by SNL in December 2013. “I deeply regret my actions & offensive words. It was inexcusable & I’m so sorry.”
Comedy Central contributor Stephen Spinola backed off on Monday from his tweet calling the boy “a very handsome date rapist-to-be.”
“I believe in Math and the stats are saying I made a bad joke. I truly apologize if it hurt Barron Trump’s feelings,” Mr. Spinola said on Twitter after a deluge of criticism.
Julie Bowen, who plays a role on the ABC sitcom “Modern Family,” offended some followers with her Instagram posts showing photos of Barron during the inaugural program with captions such as, “Barron, a voting majority shares your horror.”
Ms. Bowen, who included the hashtag #barronforpresident on her posts, later explained, “I love that Barron is a kid being a kid. My kids would be a horror show at a public event! Just trying to keep it light.”
CNN’s Jake Tapper denounced the Barron mockery as “odious, immoral & self-defeating.”
Barron may be younger than most, but he isn’t the first presidential progeny to be roughed up in the media. Unflattering remarks early on about Chelsea Clinton prompted first lady Hillary Clinton to call for a halt to the jokes.
Conservative talk show host Rush Limbaugh apologized for making a crack, and “Saturday Night Live” producer Lorne Michaels removed comments from a “Wayne’s World” sketch in which Wayne, played by Mike Myers, says “adolescence has been thus far unkind” to Chelsea.
The hands-off policy regarding White House children has extended for the most part since, including through the two terms of President Obama.
Violators have been dealt with severely in the public square. A Republican staffer resigned in 2014 after she publicly criticized Obama teenage daughters Sasha and Malia for looking bored and wearing short skirts during a Thanksgiving ceremony.
The anything-goes reaction on social media to Barron doing nothing more than attending the inaugural could be a sign of things to come in a social media universe dominated by Twitter, said Barbara Perry, director of presidential studies at the University of Virginia’s Miller Center.
“This is certainly the first incoming president with a pre-adolescent child in the Twitter age, not just the internet age,” said Ms. Perry.
She noted that the tweets making fun of Barron Trump were posted not by journalists, but by comedy writers and others who don’t abide by the same codes of conduct.
“I don’t view a writer for ‘SNL’ as a journalist. But if that person has tweeted it out, that means that person is now part of the common dialogue, and that’s the big difference to me,” Ms. Perry said.
If there’s anyone who understands the ways of Twitter, however, it’s Mr. Trump, who became famous for his frequent tweets during the campaign.
“And that’s the big irony — that’s why Donald Trump is president,” Ms. Perry said. “So the very mechanism that allowed him to become president will also be uncontrollable not just for those who disagree with his policies, but those who so dislike him that they will even say uncharitable things about his pre-adolescent son.”
Recent presidents have arrived at the White House with daughters younger than 18 — Amy Carter, Chelsea Clinton, and Sasha and Malia Obama — but Barron Trump is the first boy since 1961.
That year, President Kennedy arrived with his newborn son, John F. Kennedy Jr., and 3-year-old daughter, Caroline.
Plans are for Barron to remain with his mother, Melania Trump, in New York City until the end of the school year, after which the two are expected to move into the White House on full-time basis. Mr. Trump’s other four children are adults.
Presidential historian Doug Wead said he hopes the rash of Inauguration Day tweets and subsequent outcry signal the end of the Barron cyberbullying.
“I like the respect that we’ve shown to children in the past. I felt Chelsea got some really rough comments, and that’s painful, especially at an age where it impacts children,” said Mr. Wead, author of “Game of Thorns,” a book about the 2016 presidential race slated for release Feb. 28.
“It’s unforgivable. It’s something you remember the rest of your life, forever,” he said. “To do that to someone you don’t even know, that in most cases you haven’t even met the person and you’re doing this to cause harm — it speaks more to the accuser than it does to the victim or the target, in my opinion.”