On Saturday, President Donald Trump’s first full day in office, he gave a speech at CIA headquarters in which he lied about the size of the crowd at his inauguration and falsely claimed that he had never feuded with the U.S. intelligence community. Hours later, his press secretary emerged from the West Wing, lied about the size of the inaugural crowd and took no questions.
The most important news here is not the crowd size, or whether Trump feuded with America’s spies (he did), or even that the president and his press secretary lied. Politicians lie. What’s remarkable is that the president and his administration chose to lie, repeatedly, on their first full day on the job, about a relatively trivial ― and easily checkable ― matter.
Journalists should inform readers when the administration is not telling the truth. They shouldn’t credulously promote Trump and his team’s falsehoods in headlines and opening paragraphs, with the truth buried somewhere below. They should focus attention on the fact that the administration lied, not the content of the lie itself. Some media outlets did a good job of this on Saturday. Others didn’t. (More on that below.)
Crowd sizes don’t matter that much. Although Trump enters office historically unpopular, crowd sizes at inaugurations indicate very little about whether a president is well-liked or likely to succeed. Weather can keep people away. So can the cost: Attending inaugurations is expensive, and Hillary Clinton, not Trump, carried the states closest to D.C. Many Americans can’t afford to take off work for a day to drive or fly to Washington for an inauguration. Nor does the number of people who attend an inauguration affect a president’s ability to pass legislation.
“This was the largest audience to ever witness an inauguration, period, both in person and around the globe,” White House Press Secretary Sean Spicer claimed, falsely, Saturday evening.
Here’s the truth, which exists even if the administration doesn’t want to admit it: Fewer people attended Trump’s inauguration than attended some previous inaugurations. Keith Still, a professor at Manchester Metropolitan University and expert on crowd estimates, told The New York Times that, based on photographs, he believed Trump’s crowd was about one-third the size of the group that gathered for Barack Obama’s 2009 inauguration.
There is plenty of evidence that the Trump administration is wrong about the crowd sizes that goes beyond what you can see with your own eyes. There were only 570,000 trips taken on the Metro, Washington’s mass transit system, on Friday ― the lowest total for an inauguration day since 2005. (There were 1.1 million Metro trips on the day of Obama’s 2009 inauguration and 782,000 in 2013, according to WAMU’s Martin di Caro.)
Fewer people watched it on television, too. Some 30.6 million people watched Trump’s inauguration on TV, according to Nielsen ratings. That’s 7 million or so fewer than watched Obama’s first inaugural ― nearly 20 percent less. (Ronald Reagan’s first inauguration still holds the record.)
And in his statement Saturday, Spicer said, falsely, for the “first time in our nation’s history that floor covering has been used to protect the grass on the mall.” NBC Washington reported in 2013 that workers were scrambling to put in place grass protections ahead of Obama’s second inauguration. The press secretary also claimed that magnetometers on the National Mall limited access to the event. However, the Secret Service told CNN that “no magnetometers were used on the National Mall for Trump’s inauguration,” according to Jim Acosta. And Spicer claimed that the crowd extended from the Capitol to the Washington Monument. Photos show that it did not. All of this was easily checkable.
These falsehoods were so obvious ― and unnecessary ― that many in the news media, from the reporters summoned to the White House on a Saturday afternoon to others left in disbelief on Twitter, immediately pushed back against Trump and his team’s nonsensical spin.
One of media’s principal failings during the 2016 campaign was not challenging the lies and other unsupported claims Trump uttered in interviews, on Twitter and in rambling speeches carried live on television. Trump’s unprecedented dishonesty as a candidate only continued as president-elect. And too often, news organizations continued falling into the trap of credulously amplifying his claims that have no basis in reality.
But perhaps the media is catching on now that Trump has taken office. On Saturday, several news organizations and journalists on Twitter quickly refuted Spicer’s bogus claim, with some even calling it a lie.
Although several New York Times journalists tweeted that Spicer lied, the paper initially framed his and Trump’s tirades as the pair having “accused the media of understating inauguration crowds.”
The Times’ first version of its story on the issue didn’t state high up that the accusations lacked merit. And the Times’ next tweet on the incident focused on allegations of media bias, without noting they were baseless. Although the Times didn’t use the “L word” when updating its story, the paper took a stronger tone in a revised headline asserting that the White House’s crowd turnout claims were “false.”
CNN also showed restraint Saturday in deciding not to air Spicer’s statement live, which would have rewarded the White House with airtime to promote false information.
CNN later tweeted a report from media reporter Brian Stelter in which the headline made clear that Spicer’s rant at reporters wasn’t justified.
Spicer used his first appearance in the White House briefing room not only to lie to the press, but also to chillingly admonish reporters about what they “should be writing and covering.”
They shouldn’t listen.
Sam Levine contributed reporting.
CORRECTION: An earlier version of this story said that Barack Obama was inaugurated in 2008. He was inaugurated in 2009.