Chelsea Clinton has discovered something new since Inauguration Day: a spicy, sarcastic online personality.
In 2016, the uber-careful, wonky-like-her-mother former first daughter spent much of the presidential campaign trying not to make waves online. She tweeted about anodyne issues like elephants and hydration.
“Heartbreaking to see the elephant poaching crisis growing in Angola,” she tweeted last July, days before the Republican National Convention. “Another reason water is vital,” she wrote on Aug. 8, in the heat of the general election, linking to an article about water in Peru.
Her endorsement of H2O was retweeted just 84 times—which, given her more than 1.5 million followers, meant that it was effectively ignored.
But Hillary Clinton’s devastating defeat, coupled with the rise of President Donald Trump, has coaxed out a new Chelsea: provocative, punchier, and, for virtually the first time in her life, someone angling for attention in the political fray.
“What happened in Sweden Friday night? Did they catch the Bowling Green Massacre perpetrators?” she tweeted on Feb. 19, taking aim at both the president and his counselor, Kellyanne Conway, for fabricating terrorist attacks. The sarcastic post was retweeted more than 41,000 times.
Like the rest of the characters in her mother’s orbit, Chelsea Clinton is in a moment of transition, trying to figure out whether she’ll pursue her own political career—a move she hasn’t ruled out—or find a path outside the family business. “Lots of people are riled up and dialing it up,” said longtime Hillary Clinton confidante Philippe Reines. “Not as loyalists, but as citizens. I’m guessing that’s a big part of the motivation behind what she’s saying and how she’s saying it. She just also happens to be a Clinton.”
But since the election, Chelsea Clinton seems to have had a social media personality transplant. “I’d forgotten about my alien siblings from the early 90s,” she tweeted last week. “Oh the good old days when #fakenews was about aliens…”
“What’s #MAGA abt eliminating national service, legal services for poor people, support for the arts & public television? What am I missing?” she tweeted on Feb. 18.
A week earlier: “Is it funny sad or sad funny that our Dept. of Education misspelled the name of the great W. E. B. Du Bois?”
The tweets, Clinton insiders maintain, are coming directly from Chelsea, who posts them from her iPhone and often gives no heads up to her aides, who say they read them with everyone else.
They also dismiss the idea that anything’s changed. “There is not a lot new going on here,” said Bari Lurie, Clinton’s longtime chief of staff. “Just a continuation of what she has been saying. I guess I only wish more attention was paid to her events on the trail, as I don’t think her tone would feel so foreign.”
Chelsea Clinton was criticized during the primary last year for mischaracterizing Sen. Bernie Sanders’ health care plan at a campaign event in New Hampshire, saying he wanted to “dismantle Obamacare.” But for the most part, she was seen as a benign softening influence, and support system, for her mother.
But with her parents largely silent, Chelsea is now the most vocal Clinton—and her newfound voice is filling some of the void for Democratic activists. “I like her now,” said one former Hillary Clinton aide, who in the past has found Chelsea to be disappointingly stiff in the spotlight.
People close to the family said they see the tweets as an example of Clinton trying on something new for size as she processes her mother’s loss—and returns to semi-private life post-campaign.
I don’t know if she’s ever going to run for office. I have no idea,” said Virginia Gov. Terry McAuliffe, a longtime close Clinton friend. “She’s bright and she’s engaged and she’s got things to say on issues and I think it’s great having her voice out there.”
She’s attended two protests in New York City since the election: a rally protesting Trump’s immigration ban, and a Muslim solidarity rally last week—again only letting her team know she was going when she tweeted pictures and called them from the event, according to aides.
Other Clinton insiders, however, interpreted her move more cynically as an attempt to remain relevant—part of the family DNA that makes the Clintons unable to ever leave the stage completely.
She now also often retweets or interacts with journalists online — the very members of the fourth estate she has ignored, looked through, and for the most part declined to speak with through her mother’s two presidential bids. She declined to comment for this article.
Inside the White House, the barbs from Chelsea are greeted with a shrug. “Hadn’t noticed until you told me,” said Conway of the tweets castigating her for her reference in a television interview to the nonexistent “Bowling Green Massacre.” “One of us is busy in the White House.”
Conway added in a text message: “A highlight of my Inauguration Day was when her father, President Bill Clinton, congratulated me on our victory and our new POTUS and complimented my red, white and blue coat. He said it in way more than 140 characters and I appreciated his class and graciousness.”
According to friends and associates, the Clintons have been processing the loss in different ways.
Hillary Clinton, who has spent most of her time since November in New York, has been met with standing ovations at the Broadway shows she’s attended and mobbed by wellwishers at restaurants. That has only fortified a pervasive sense of victimhood in her mind, friends said.
Chelsea Clinton, meanwhile, is still serving as vice chair of the family foundation, and promoting a new academic book, co-written with global health professor Devi Sridhar, called “Governing Global Health.” She is also an adjunct professor at Columbia University.
But she is also considering a future that is not necessarily tied so closely to her parents’ work. Her bio on Twitter identifies her as a mother, wife, advocate, author, teacher and New Yorker—everything but the label that most of the world identifies her with: daughter.
There’s an understanding among people close to the Clintons that Chelsea needs to figure out what the next chapter is. Stepping out with more personality and verve on Twitter, people close to the Clintons said, is a way to dip her toes into public life. But they say it’s not a calculated part of a broader strategy for a political campaign, or anything else.
In an interview with the New York Times Book Review this week about her reading habits, Chelsea Clinton was asked who she would want to write her biography. “Me,” she responded. “But there’s so much more to do before that question even gets asked.”
Shane Goldmacher contributed to this report.