At 11:35 p.m. on March 23, an anonymous Twitter user posted an image with a side-by-side comparison of Ted Cruz’s wife Heidi and Donald Trump’s wife Melania. The caption read: “No need to “spill the beans.” The images are worth a thousand words."
At 11:55 p.m. that night, presumptive Republican nominee Donald Trump manually retweeted the image to his millions of followers.
It depicted Heidi Cruz, mouth crookedly agape in anguish, her forehead shiny with unbecoming bags under her eyes, next to the clearly photoshopped and posed image of a flawless-skinned Melania Trump. And for a few days worth of news cycles—now what seems like ages ago—it dominated the Republican primary, drawing ire from everyone from Fox News host Megyn Kelly to former candidate and daily punching bag Jeb Bush.
It was the bridge too far for a candidate who had referred to some Mexican immigrants as “rapists,” questioned whether Kelly was being hard on him because she was menstruating, and planned to impose a temporary ban on Muslim immigrants entering the United States. As Ted Cruz put it at the time: “Real men don’t attack women.”
Months later, after Trump had all but officially secured the nomination and pole-vaulted to the next outrageous news cycle, the meme’s father still felt bad that his creation had the potential to derail the real estate mogul’s campaign. But the image may not have been a pet project from a super-fan. According to a former Trump staffer, it came from within The Donald’s own ranks.
“I made this meme which almost took Mr. Trump down,” the man associated with the account @Don_Vito_08 told The Daily Beast in a phone interview. At the time, he explained, Vito thought that an ad depicting a semi-nude Melania Trump had been distributed by the Cruz campaign. It in fact came from an anti-Trump PAC trying to convince Mormons to vote against the former reality television star and his scantily-clad wife.
“I thought that Cruz was actually making the call to put these things out,” he explained. “That was the reaction that I had.” And Vito imagined Trump sitting in his bedroom, in a gold-encrusted bathrobe looking at the meme and thinking “this is exactly how I feel.”
Don Vito would not provide his real name. He also called from multiple phone numbers during various attempts to schedule an interview—some of which were blocked numbers. He claimed that he works as a graphic artist but has “gone solo” recently.
Vito is persistent on Twitter, tweeting his crude impromptu self-designed memes at Trump’s Twitter account throughout the day. They are often pegged to immediate news as it happens; one recent image depicts an old woman in jorts wearing a bandanna on her head with the words “Crooked Hillary and Sen. Elizabeth Warren ‘Pocahontas’ Losers.” And they’re not so different from official Trump campaign social media blasts, often relying on Trump’s own language.
“All those memes come from two places, my heart and my brain,” Vito explained. “Every time Trump speaks, I get him. I get what he’s saying.”
According to MyTwitterBirthday.com, Vito created the account last August and has since been lifted from obscurity to occasional content farm for Trump’s darkest impulses. He has somehow managed to get retweeted, by his count, three times by the candidate. It’s a surprising achievement—all the more so because Vito’s tweets have popped up in Trump’s feed within minutes of generating the image and tweeting it at Trump.
Earlier this month, Vito tweeted an image of a smiling African-American family with the words: “American Families for Trump” written in red and white font beside the picture. It was, for immediate intents and purposes, an inoffensive image.
The problem with the picture, which ended up on the timeline of a major party candidate for the president of the United States, was that the family depicted took the photo at a family reunion in Cincinnati. And they said that they don’t support Trump.
“I randomly picked this image from out of the internet,” Vito lamented. “I should have vetted the image. It was more like a representation in my mind of what I think an African-American family would look like. That was a mistake.”
Trump’s Twitter feed has been a frequent source of controversy in his campaign, serving as a thorn in everyone’s side including but not limited to his own wife and campaign surrogate Ben Carson. It’s where, at times, you catch a glimpse of the unvarnished Trump—out of the control of his campaign handlers, and often in direct command of his 9 million-strong social channel.
In January this year, Trump’s Twitter raised eyebrows when the candidate retweeted an image from an account with the handle @WhiteGenocideTM. It depicted Jeb Bush in a beanie and a parka looking disheveled outside of Trump Tower with a piece of cardboard on which the words “Vote Trump” were scribbled.
Within nine minutes of its existence online, Trump had retweeted it.
The tiny gap in time between when these memes are created and when Trump retweets them is odd, to say the least. It’s hard to believe that among the thousands of replies to many of Trump’s tweets that he happens upon these questionable images randomly over and over again.
One former staffer familiar with the campaign’s social media practices told The Daily Beast that he thought a Trump Organization employee was creating these pro-Trump accounts and then retweeting them from the main account himself.
The employee’s name is Justin McConney, according to the former staffer, and he helped cultivate Trump’s stylistic short Instagram attack videos.
“He handles/creates all the ‘viral’ images and videos on Instagram, Twitter, etc. and has direct access to the candidate’s Twitter account,” the staffer familiar with the operation explained via email to The Daily Beast. Two former staffers said Trump approves of all the retweets on the account. His campaign did not respond to a request for comment about these details.
But at some point in time on the morning of Jan. 22, whoever was operating Trump’s account was feeling particularly playful and decided the Jeb Bush image was a good idea.
According to the staffer, the retweet of the @WhiteGenocideTM account was brought up to former campaign manager Corey Lewandowski as a possible issue. He didn’t think it mattered and they moved on.
When The Daily Beast asked McConney if he had made the Heidi Cruz meme or the accounts @Don_Vito_08 or @WhiteGenocideTM, he responded in a terse email.
“The answer to both your questions is no,” McConney said. “Anything printed contrary to my answer would be false and erroneous.”
When Vito was asked whether he was involved with the campaign in any capacity, he simply responded: “nope.” As to whether he was getting paid by them to do this work: “nope.”
But if Dan Scavino, Trump’s social media manager called and offered him a job, Vito said he’d happily accept. (Scavino’s current Twitter background was actually made by Vito.)
As he’s moved into the general election, Trump has managed to not retweet a questionable image that gets him into hot water; that is as of this writing.
And even though he knows his meddlesome images have made things tough for Trump in the past, Vito is not interested in changing his ways.
“If I have the next president of the United States retweeting me three times, I’m doing something right.”