One of the many things that is remarkable about the Trump administration is its devotion, even in its first days, to a particular variety of pointless falsehood.
Mendacity among politicians and the spokespeople hired to spin for them runs across eras and aisles, though it is true that some are more honest than others, and Donald Trump was a historically dishonest presidential candidate. But the Trump administration has displayed a commitment to needlessly lying that is confounding to even the most cynical observers of American politics.
No incident better summarizes this than a bizarre briefing by White House Press Secretary Sean Spicer on Saturday. Speaking in the Brady Briefing Room, Spicer laid into the assembled reporters.
“Yesterday, at a time when our nation and the world was watching the peaceful transition of power and, as the president said, the transition and the balance of power from Washington to the citizens of the United States, some members of the media were engaged in deliberately false reporting,” he charged.
He then went on at length, attacking reporters, particularly one from The New York Times, for tweeting photographs comparing the size of the crowd at Friday’s inauguration unfavorably with Barack Obama’s first inauguration. (That image was retweeted from the National Park Service’s account, prompting a brief Twitter freeze at the Interior Department.)
“Inaccurate numbers involving crowd size were also tweeted,” Spicer continued, because the NPS did not count. (My colleague Robinson Meyer explained how crowd counts at events like the inauguration come about.) He incorrectly characterized ridership statistics provided by WMATA, D.C.’s transit authority.
Then came the big whopper: “This was the largest audience to ever witness an inauguration—period—both in person and around the globe.”
Spicer’s statement required dismissing all available evidence: ridership count, eyewitness testimony, independent crowd-counts, and Nielsen television ratings. Spicer cut his teeth at the Republican National Committee as the combative voice of a body often at odds with the media, but even by those standards, his furious insistence on assertions at odds with the evidence were peculiar.
They are, however, emerging as a hallmark of the administration. For days ahead of the inauguration, Trump aides insisted that the president-elect was writing his own inaugural address, without the aid of speechwriters. They went so far as to stage a photograph that purported to show him writing the speech—though the image showed Trump wielding a Sharpie, and some internet sleuths speculated that the desk he was using is typically used as a reception desk at his Mar-a-Lago estate.
On Friday, however, The Wall Street Journal reported, “Much of the speech was written by Stephen Miller and Steve Bannon, two of Mr. Trump’s top advisers, a White House official said.” Why mislead the public about who wrote the speech? After all, the news that Miller would be assisting in writing the address had emerged days ago, and there’s certainly no shame in a president employing speechwriters, nor has the practice dimmed positive reception for past presidential addresses.
Ahead of the inauguration, Trump threw a concert in front of the Lincoln Memorial. “This started out tonight being a small little concert, and then we had the idea maybe we’ll do it in front of the Lincoln Memorial,” Trump said in brief remarks. “I don’t know if it’s ever been done before. But if it has, very seldom.” That claim was also ridiculous, whether it was intentionally misleading or simply badly misinformed. There was a huge, widely covered concert at the memorial to kick off Obama’s inauguration festivities eight years ago.
These are only three examples of Trump and his aides offering statements that are not only provably false, but easily checked. (There are plenty more where they came from, like Trump’s claim that Russian hacking was not brought up before the election.)
There was a brief skirmish within the journalism world around the new year, when Wall Street Journal editor Gerry Baker professed wariness about how some of Trump’s statements had been labeled. “I’d be careful about using the word ‘lie.’ ‘Lie’ implies much more than just saying something that’s false. It implies a deliberate intent to mislead,” he said. Baker took some heat for that statement in some more progressive parts of the press, but his distinction is real and important.
But how is anyone to view Spicer’s statement as stemming from anything other than a deliberate intent to mislead? The facts are clear, and given that Spicer did not take questions, his main purpose on Saturday must have been to spread falsehoods about crowd size.
Top Trump aide Kellyanne Conway appeared on Meet the Press Sunday morning, where Chuck Todd grilled her on the incident. “The presidency is about choices. I’m curious why President Trump chose yesterday to send out his press secretary to essentially litigate a provable falsehood when it comes to a small and petty thing like inaugural crowd size,” Todd asked. Conway first tried to deflect, saying, “I don’t think presidents are judged by crowd sizes, they’re judged by accomplishments.” Fair enough, Todd said—so why lie?
“You’re saying it’s a falsehood, and Sean Spicer, our press secretary, gave alternative facts,” Conway responded.
Todd was flabbergasted by the Orwellian turn of phrase: “Alternative facts are not facts. They’re falsehoods.”
There’s still no good explanation for Spicer’s statement, but it fits with a long-running mantra from Trump aides and supporters that there’s no such thing as an objective reality. The question for Trump and his aides is simple: If you’re willing to lie about stuff this minuscule, why should anyone believe what you say about the really big things that matter?
The Trump campaign made a winning wager that enough voters didn’t care that they could get away with that, and the nascent Trump administration seems to be going double-or-nothing on the gamble. Perhaps that’s a winning bet, and objective facts are a thing of the past. But that’s a claim that’s been advanced before, not that long ago, in American history, by a Republican administration whose top aides disdained the “reality-based community.” That administration left office amid an enormous economic recession, and Trump himself called George W. Bush’s war in Iraq “a big fat mistake.” It’s a strange precedent for Trump to adopt at the start of his presidency.