A news channel streaming the White House briefing room doesn’t normally catch my eye, but it did last Saturday as I sat at my airport gate, on the way back from vacation. I couldn’t remember the last briefing I’d seen on a weekend — my stomach started to sink as I worried that a national tragedy had happened. Instead, I watched in horror as press secretary Sean Spicer delivered a statement in which he falsely claimed that the largest audience in history witnessed Donald Trump’s inauguration.
If that wasn’t unbelievable enough, the next day senior adviser Kellyanne Conway defended Spicer’s comments, saying he had provided “alternative facts.” I have never before witnessed such a disregard for facts from the White House, and I know a bit about the subject: From 2015 to 2017, I was a fact-checker for President Barack Obama.
How the White House fact-checking operation worked: If we couldn’t back it up, it had to go
As a research associate in the Office of Communications, I quickly learned some things about the nature of facts in politics. First, that fact-checking is in-depth work. My co-workers and I pored over speech draft after speech draft, methodically verifying that every individual factual statement in any of the president’s prepared remarks was backed up by reputable sources. We worked closely with the speechwriting and policy departments to ensure that each fact the president said represented his views in an accurate, verifiable way. If we couldn’t back it up, it had to go. We thought through the possible counterarguments that people from both sides of the aisle could make to rebut our statements, and we made sure we were on as solid ground as possible.
When I say we checked every fact, that’s not an exaggeration. Because we hunted down anything that could be debated as true or false, a page or two of remarks could take hours to comb through. Sometimes the job could feel like overkill (like when I spent half a day trying to verify the number of Bo and Sunny cookies served at the White House holiday parties). We even vetted each individual who was mentioned in remarks — even if they had been dead for a thousand years, and even if they were eighth-graders, which can really feel like overkill. But most of the time, the work of fact-checking felt like a necessary part of upholding the integrity of both President Obama and the office of the presidency as a whole.
I would never claim that we were perfect, because we are human. And of course there have been times when there has been legitimate debate over our framing of a piece of information. The press played an important role in holding us to a high standard, calling out instances when the president said things that turned out to be inaccurate. But day after day, my co-workers and I came into work, sat down at our desks, and vetted the president’s words for accuracy. That’s part of what makes the institution of president of the United States strong, one that the American people can trust.
Respect for the truth has to come from the top
The culture the Obama administration had for valuing factual accuracy doesn’t come by default — the tone is set at the top. President Obama’s respect for facts and data pervaded the entire White House, and he never made it a secret. When President Obama called on the press to fact-check his statements about the administration’s economic progress in his speech in Elkhart, Indiana, it was because he trusted what he was saying had been verified to the best of our ability, and he was proud of it.
Any fact-checker knows that without widespread mutual respect for the truth, the job can feel a bit like you’re being paid to irritate writers by telling them why they’re wrong. I was lucky to work in a place where there was a culture, from the president and his speechwriters on down, that thought it was important to get things right.
But this norm that we worked to uphold, which lets the American people assume by default the president is not actively trying to deceive them, is a fragile one. It only exists if our leadership believes it’s a worthwhile thing to aspire to. We were lucky in that regard, but without a leader who insists on facts, that norm can quickly crumble.
In fact, the Trump administration is demonstrating that there’s pretty good incentive not to tell the truth at all.
How the Trump administration exploits the public’s distrust of the media
As Ezra Klein touched on recently, when Sean Spicer goes into the briefing room to tell a clear, demonstrable falsehood, he’s employing a pretty effective, apparently intentional strategy. He’s waging a war on facts that capitalizes on the strong distrust of the media that already exists in a lot of people’s minds.
A lot of us heard what Spicer said and thought it was self-evidently ridiculous (just compare the photos of the two inaugurations!), but a lot of Trump voters may have heard what Spicer said and believed him. When they read headlines the next day that say Spicer used “false claims” to attack the media’s reporting of turnout, they may not be inclined to believe those claims actually were false — they may be more likely to believe the dishonest media is out to get Trump.
Heightening that distrust is a useful tool for the Trump team, particularly with more significant battles ahead. In reality, there is no incentive for the Trump administration to stick to the truth, particularly when it drives a helpful wedge deeper between their base and the press. Things seem likely to stay that way unless that wedge stops being useful — if the public, especially Trump supporters, starts to doubt what they hear from the president and his administration.
The Trump administration’s treatment of the truth has me thinking about another phenomenon I learned as a fact-checker: Though there is no politician who receives higher scrutiny than the president, a lot of what a president or his team announces is taken as fact.
For example, a few months ago, President Obama announced the 2014-’15 high school graduation rate had increased from the year prior to 83.2 percent. When the press reported this, they didn’t say, “President Obama claimed today that the high school graduation rate increased.” They reported the graduation rate had gone up. His statement was reported as a fact, not a claim.
This happens a lot, and that’s partly because many of the announcements we made were statistics that outlets could independently verify, but it also is partly because when the president of the United States announces something, and puts out a fact sheet and data about it, the tendency is to believe it’s true. On top of this, there is simply not enough bandwidth for outlets to verify every single thing the president says.
However, the inclination to publish the president’s words as facts and not claims must change to adapt to a time when the White House has already shown a willingness to lie about something as silly as inaugural crowds. In a recent briefing, Spicer refused to confirm that President Trump believes the unemployment rate is 4.7 percent as reported by the Bureau of Labor Statistics, the broadly accepted measure that politicians, economists, and journalists use to track how employment is doing.
How will reporters frame it if the Trump administration announces the unemployment rate is something other than what the Bureau of Labor Statistics reports — as a fact, or a claim? What happens if the Trump administration directs the bureau, a federal agency, to release data that’s altogether false — how will the media independently verify those numbers?
This spans every aspect of the presidency too, not just employment announcements. If economic statistics don’t bother you, think about this: What happens when there is a national emergency, like a mass shooting, and the country looks to the president to explain what’s going on? Will the press and the public trust him to tell the truth?
The Trump administration’s relationship with the truth is troubling — even when it is not actively lying
When Kellyanne Conway told NBC that the Trump administration was using “alternative facts,” she rightly received a lot of criticism for it. The moment was an affront to the integrity of the presidency, but it also reminded me of something else I learned as a fact-checker: Even the truth can be deceiving when cherry-picked. Pay attention to exactly what is being said, and think about why certain facts are being presented rather than other alternatives.
A good example of using the truth to deceive is Spicer’s statement on Saturday. Here’s a section of what he said: “We know that 420,000 people used the DC Metro public transit yesterday, which actually compares to 317,000 that used it for President Obama's last inaugural.”
Let’s take that last piece. It is true that 317,000 people did travel using Metro as of 11 am on the day of President Obama’s second inauguration. That’s not a bad way to estimate how many people attended the event; a lot of people opted to take public transportation, and admission is in the morning. To a reasonable person listening to Spicer’s remarks, this line might sound plausible and convincing, and it might even seem to prove Spicer right about President Trump’s crowd size. If you went as far as to search for that figure yourself, you could confirm that particular number was accurate.
The problem is Spicer doesn’t compare that number with its logical equivalent: Metro ridership by 11 am on President Trump’s Inauguration Day, which was 193,000. And if he had really wanted to get things right, it would’ve been fairer to compare President Trump’s first inauguration with President Obama’s first inauguration, since first inaugurations often have higher attendance. As many journalists have already pointed out, President Obama’s first inauguration also has President Trump beat.
Of course, the biggest problem of all is that 420,000 number, which can’t be confirmed. Spicer even admitted the next day it doesn’t come from Metro. That number is pretty close to the total number of rides taken on Metro on Inauguration Day, 570,000 entries, but even if he had correctly cited that number, it would’ve been misleading to compare it with the 11 am total for Obama.
Why everyone — not just in the media — should do a little fact-checking of their own
The inauguration crowd size doesn’t matter at the end of the day. But what does matter is Spicer knows how to deceive the public by using factual statements. Given a range of possible statistics about crowd size, Spicer selected a very specific one that he could highlight to advance his point and ignored the other ones, and that’s deception by telling the truth. As time goes on, it’s likely some pundits will want to praise the Trump team when they do use facts that are based in reality, like that 317,000 number. That’s a big mistake, because the Trump administration will keep using facts to mislead people.
The Trump administration will also keep lying. They will keep doing it, at the expense of the trustworthiness of the office of the president, because it is helping them wage their short-term battles.
The press needs to play a major part in combating this, by stating upfront in their reporting when a Trump official says something deceitful or lies outright, approaching every Trump announcement with skepticism, and continuing to push Trump officials in briefings and interviews on dishonesties. But they can’t do it alone. The press’s efforts to demand accuracy can be painted as more antics by a dishonest media if the public is not on their side.
My best advice for the public is for everyone to do a little fact-checking of their own. Listen to exactly what is being said, see if it sounds right to you, and then do a Google search to see if a major piece of context has been omitted. See if you can find a primary source, like the original data source of the numbers they quote, or a transcript or video of a moment they claim happened.
Compare the things President Trump says today with the things he said months ago and see where they contradict each other. See where his advisers contradict each other. Read as widely as possible, make your own conclusions, and trust your judgment. Then make sure you start telling people about it, and make sure your voice is heard.
Meredith Bohen is a former research associate in the White House Office of Communications. You can find out more about her here.