While millions of women in cities throughout the world marched Saturday to protest US president Donald Trump’s inauguration, the Trump administration focused on righting perceived wrongs from the press.
“I have a running war with the media, they are among the most dishonest human beings on Earth,” Trump said in a speech at CIA headquarters in Langley, Virginia. The 45th president of the US spent a significant chunk of the CIA speech criticizing press coverage that compared his inaugural crowd to that of former president Barack Obama in 2009.
“We had a massive field of people, packed,” Trump said. “But I get up this morning and turn on one of the networks, and they show an empty field. I say, ‘Wait a minute, I made a speech. I looked out.’ The field looked like a million, a million and a half people. They showed a field where there were practically nobody standing.”
There was no evidence of a million or a million and a half people in attendance, and photographs of the crowd did show a significantly smaller attendance on Friday than Obama’s 2009 inauguration.
On Saturday night, White House press secretary Sean Spicer called the administration’s first press conference to further insist the inauguration was well-attended. “This was the largest audience to ever witness an inauguration. Period. Both in person and around the globe,” Spicer told news outlets.
Sunday morning, Meet The Press host Chuck Todd asked Kellyanne Conway, Trump’s senior adviser and former campaign manager, to explain Spicer’s untrue statement about the audience size. Conway responded by saying Todd was being “overly dramatic.”
“Sean Spicer, our press secretary, gave alternative facts,” Conway said, before moving on to discuss Trump’s other first-day-in-office action: the signing of executive orders designed to stunt enforcement of the Affordable Care Act.
The actual number of inauguration attendees is unimportant. But debating it is not petty, because there is a potentially dangerous strategy underlying the Trump administration’s effort to lie about this fact—and to spread the notion that there is such a thing as “alternative facts.” Vox’s Ezra Klein, for example, argues the attack on a provable fact was a purposeful an attempt to undermine the public trust of the media. “Delegitimizing the institutions that might report inconvenient or damaging facts about the president is strategic for an administration that has made a slew of impossible promises and takes office amid a cloud of ethics concerns and potential scandals,” he writes.
It also undermines the credibility of any information that will come out of the White House. CNN’s Brian Stelter writes in his Reliable Sources newsletter that trust in Spicer (and the administration he represents) is split on a partisan line:
On “AC360,” this credibility conversation sounded awfully partisan at times, with Democrats taking one side and Republicans taking the other side.
“Today the White House lied to the American public. The first day in office,” Bakari Sellers said. “You can call it whatever you want to, but they lied.”
Peggy Nance responded: “Most of America believes Sean Spicer over all of you… His credibility is higher than yours.”
“Will Spicer have credibility with the White House press corps in the days, weeks and months to come? What he said was contradicted by photos and videos,” Stelter writes.
However, news coverage has largely sided with the evidence that Trump’s crowds were smaller, with even conservative outlets like Fox News and RT conceding that the Trump administration statements were untrue.