Speaking at the CIA this afternoon, President Donald Trump said, “I have a running war with the media.”
Like much that Trump says, this isn’t quite true. His war isn’t with the media. Trump lives off media attention and delights in press coverage. His war is with facts. And it’s there that his tactical skirmishes with the press begin to make sense. Delegitimizing the media is important to Trump because delegitimizing certain facts is important to Trump.
The topic today — and trust me, it feels as strange to write this as it does to read this — is crowd size. Trump’s inaugural was sparsely attended compared with President Obama’s inaugural. We don’t have exact estimates yet, but aerial shots are clear on this point, as is secondary data, like Metro ridership and television ratings.
There is no great mystery to this. Trump lost the popular vote in the presidential election — and by a wide margin. Since the election, poll after poll has shown him to be unpopular. A lackluster response to his inauguration is precisely what you would predict in this situation.
But Trump has insisted that turnout was, well, yuge. Speaking at the CIA, he said he “looked out, the field was, it looked like a million, million and a half people. They showed a field where there were practically nobody standing there.”
To be fair, the crowd might have looked much larger to Trump. Where you stand matters quite a bit in making these estimates:
How does a vantage point matter? These photos were both taken at about noon. One is what Sean Spicer now has on display in WH briefing room. pic.twitter.com/5MYIClNhp8— Matt Viser (@mviser) January 21, 2017
But it soon came clear that this wasn’t an off-the-cuff comment from the new president. Trump then had press secretary Sean Spicer call an impromptu briefing in which Spicer lashed the press for estimating crowd size. “Nobody had numbers, because the National Park Service does not put any out,” he insisted. Seconds later, he said: “This was the largest audience ever to witness an inauguration, both in person and around the globe.”
This, along with much else Spicer said, was plainly untrue. But there’s a strategy at work here. The Trump administration is creating a baseline expectation among its loyalists that they can’t trust anything said by the media. The spat over crowd size is a low-stakes, semi-comic dispute, but the groundwork is being laid for much more consequential debates over what is, and isn’t, true.
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.
It also gives the new administration a convenient scapegoat for their continued struggles with public opinion, and their potential future struggles with reality. This kind of “dishonesty from the media,” Spicer said, is making it hard “to bring our country together.” It’s not difficult to imagine the Trump administration disputing bad jobs numbers in the future, or claiming their Obamacare replacement covers everyone when it actually throws millions off insurance.
Spicer ended the statement on a warning. “There has been a lot of talk in the media about the responsibility of holding Donald Trump accountable. I am here to tell you that it goes two ways. We are going hold the press accountable as well.”