Senior Trump administration officials pushed back on Sunday against the media amid incorrect claims about crowd sizes at Friday’s presidential inauguration that were made by President Donald Trump and his spokesman.
“There is an obsession by the media to delegitimize this president, and we are not going to sit around and let it happen,” White House Chief of Staff Reince Priebus said on “Fox News Sunday.” “We are going to fight back tooth and nail every day, and twice on Sunday.”
On Saturday, White House Press Secretary Sean Spicer set off a firestorm of criticism when he made a statement to reporters that was widely panned as angry and flat-out false, in which he berated journalists for how they were reporting on Trump’s crowd size at the inauguration. All available evidence shows that it was significantly smaller than the audience Barack Obama drew on the National Mall at his first inauguration in 2009.
“This was the largest audience to ever witness an inauguration—period—both in person and around the globe,” Spicer said, despite Nielsen ratings released earlier in the day that proved otherwise. “These attempts to lessen the enthusiasm of the inauguration are shameful and wrong.”
According to crowd experts, Trump’s inauguration ceremony on the National Mall drew far fewer people than Obama’s first inauguration in 2009 as well as an estimated one-third the number of people who showed up for the women’s march in Washington on Saturday. Experts determined that 160,000 people were on the National Mall just before Trump’s inaugural address.
Additionally, according to Nielsen TV ratings, 31 million people watched Trump’s inauguration—fewer than Obama’s audience of 37.8 million for his first swearing-in. As CNN’s Brian Stelter pointed out, 41.8 million people tuned into Ronald Reagan’s first inauguration.
After speaking at the lectern in the briefing room, Spicer left without taking questions from reporters. Chuck Todd, the moderator of NBC’s “Meet the Press,” was shocked at Spicer’s statement, tweeting afterward: “I’ve run out of adjectives.” Former White House Press Secretary Ari Fleischer, who served in the George W. Bush administration, suggested that Trump himself asked Spicer to make the statement given its similarity to the rhetoric typically employed by Trump.
Spicer accused the press of “sowing division about tweets and false narratives,” and said journalists’ “dishonesty” is making it more difficult for Trump to unify the country.
“It’s really not about crowd size. What it’s about is honesty in the media,” Priebus said on Sunday. “The media, from day one, has been talking about delegitimizing the election, talking about the Russians, talking about everything you can imagine except for the fact that we need to move this country forward.”
When confronted on “Meet the Press” about Spicer’s false claims, Kellyanne Conway accused Todd of being “overly dramatic” about Spicer’s briefing.
“Sean Spicer, our press secretary, gave alternative facts to that,” Conway, a counselor to Trump, said before Todd interjected: “Look, alternative facts are not facts. They’re falsehoods.” Conway added that there isn’t a way to “quantify” the size of the crowd. She ultimately did not specify why Spicer made the statement to the press about crowd sizes.
Earlier Saturday, Trump spoke at the CIA’s headquarters in Langley, Virginia, and said “it looked like a million, a million and a half people” on the National Mall with crowds going all the way back to the Washington Monument. Available images and videos from the inauguration contradict both of those claims.
Trump signaled on Saturday that he will not depart from his strategy employed during the campaign and transition of vehemently criticizing the press.
“I have a running war with the media,” the president said. “They are among the most dishonest human beings on Earth.”
Trump made the statement to CIA employees in front of the agency’s Memorial Wall, which commemorates CIA operatives who died in the line of duty. Former CIA Director John Brennan called it a “despicable display of self-aggrandizement,” and said Trump “should be ashamed of himself.”
On ABC’s “This Week,” Conway said the “deeply disappointing” remarks made Brennan sound like a “partisan political hack.”