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Spicergate, explained: the controversy about Trump’s press secretary and crowd size

The dust-up was an illuminating — and alarming — start to the Trump administration.

MANDEL NGAN/AFP/Getty

“This was the largest audience to ever witness an inauguration, period. Both in person and around the globe.”

The new White House press secretary, Sean Spicer, introduced himself to the American people this weekend with these words — words that came after a series of tendentious factual claims about attendance at President Donald Trump’s inauguration and that made a remarkable contrast with readily available photographic evidence.

Javier Zarracina / Vox

Spicer’s statement made for a jarring introduction to the new Trump administration, and he came in for a good deal of condemnation from reporters and mockery from observers of all political stripes. A hashtag called #SeanSpicerFacts, in which pictures of Spicer at the briefing were posted alongside humorous false claims, trended on Twitter.

Two days later, when he was pushed at Monday’s first full press briefing, Spicer said he was “not” saying Trump had the largest in-person inaugural crowd. Indeed, he argued that he had never made such a claim, saying that he was only referring to the combined in-person, TV, and streaming global audience as the largest. This claim about the total audience was also quite questionable, and as the Weekly Standard’s Michael Warren archly observed, “Why it took Spicer two days to make this clarification wasn't clear.” But the shift seemed sufficient to satisfy many reporters, many of whom publicly praised Spicer’s performance Monday.

At its heart, this squabble about crowd size may not seem particularly consequential. But this dust-up has broader implications for how the new Trump administration is shaping up — in how it will deal with the press, in whether it can be trusted to provide basic factual information, and in just how hard the press corps is going to push back.

1) Who is Sean Spicer?

A longtime Republican operative, Spicer held a series of press jobs for congressional Republicans and then in the US Trade Representative’s Office of George W. Bush’s administration (which, given the Bush administration’s policies, meant he was often arguing that big trade deals were wonderful). Eventually he became communications director of the Republican National Committee, and while he worked there, RNC Chair Reince Priebus made the crucial decision to cooperate with Trump’s victory in the 2016 primaries rather than mobilizing the party to try to stop him at the convention or beforehand.

So Priebus’s RNC ended up a valuable ally to Trump’s team. That included Spicer, who became a tireless advocate for Trump in the press. When the plagiarism of Michelle Obama in Melania Trump’s convention speech was discovered, Spicer absurdly argued that it may not have been plagiarism because My Little Pony used somewhat similar wording too.

And when Trump’s “grab ’em by the pussy” comments leaked and Spicer was asked whether they described sexual assault, he told a reporter, “I don’t know, I’m not a lawyer.” He subsequently denied ever saying this, but his comment turned out to be on tape.

In the end, Priebus was rewarded with the White House chief of staff job, and he reportedly pushed for Spicer to take the White House press secretary post. Originally, Spicer was supposed to serve on the press team alongside longtime Trump loyalists Jason Miller (communications director) and Hope Hicks (strategic communications director). However, when Miller decided not to take the communications director job due to an apparent sex scandal, Spicer was handed his job too.

Traditionally, the White House press secretary is the president's main spokesperson and representative, with the responsibility of dealing with the press on a day-to-day basis (and often getting grilled by reporters). Meanwhile, the communications director is usually a separate aide in charge of the bigger-picture strategizing about how the president can get his message out through the media and to the American people. Since Spicer has both jobs, though, he is the top press staffer in the White House — on paper, at least.

2) What did Sean Spicer do this weekend?

MANDEL NGAN/AFP/Getty

On Saturday afternoon — the first full day of the Trump administration — Spicer called reporters to the White House briefing room to deliver a statement denouncing the media.

Spicer first complained about a Time magazine reporter’s inaccurate statement from Friday night that Trump had removed a bust of Martin Luther King Jr. from the Oval Office. (The reporter quickly admitted he was mistaken and apologized.) Spicer called the reporter “irresponsible and reckless.”

Then, Spicer moved on to the main event — he made the case, at length, that the media was trying to “lessen the enthusiasm of the inauguration” by understating the size of Trump’s crowds (bolstering a case Trump himself had made in a speech to CIA employees a few hours earlier).

  • Spicer argued that “this was the first time in our nation's history that floor coverings have been used to protect the grass on the Mall,” which “had the effect of highlighting any areas where people were not standing” in photos. (This is untrue; floor coverings were used for Obama’s 2013 inauguration, though not for the 2009 one used for many viral photo comparisons.)
  • He also claimed that it was “the first time that fencing and magnetometers went as far back on the Mall, preventing hundreds of thousands of people from being able to access the Mall as quickly as they had in inaugurations past.” (But McClatchy reports that magnetometers were not actually used and quotes a law enforcement source saying he was “not aware of any issues” with crowd flow.)
  • And he made the inaccurate claim that 420,000 people used the DC metro on inauguration day and only 317,000 used it for Obama’s 2013 inauguration. (In fact, Metro says 782,000 trips were taken for Obama’s full Inauguration Day that year and only 570,000 for Trump’s.)

Finally, Spicer summed things up with a statement that immediately became iconic: “This was the largest audience to ever witness an inauguration, period. Both in person and around the globe.”

3) How did this go over?

Photos comparing Trump’s inauguration turnout with Obama’s in 2009 were everywhere on social media Friday, and proved to anyone with eyes that, as far as the in-person numbers went, Trump’s turnout wasn’t even close to Obama’s. The fact-checks of Spicer’s specific claims quickly poured in too.

Naturally, then, condemnations and mockery poured in from both sides of the political aisle. George W. Bush’s first White House press secretary, Ari Fleischer, tweeted that Spicer’s statement made him “uncomfortable and concerned” and that the press was “right 2b upset.” Former Clinton campaign spokesperson Brian Fallon said Spicer should have resigned rather than lying to the press. And David Martosko, a Daily Mail editor who was reportedly a contender for Spicer’s job, tweeted that “losing credibility is like a spinal cord injury. Takes 1 second to snap. Takes forever to recover. You’re still never really whole again.”

Spicer’s statement became the stuff of fun even for Golden State Warriors coach Steve Kerr, who joked at a press conference that Spicer would say he scored “14,000 points” during his brief stint as a player for the Orlando Magic. Soon, Twitter users invented the #SpicerFacts meme in which they’d post obviously false statements alongside Spicer’s picture:

So overall, it went great.

4) Don’t press secretaries always lie, though?

White House press secretaries from both parties have a long and noble tradition of misleading the press. Their job frequently involves putting the best possible gloss on conditions in the country or the world, explaining away apparent scandals, or portraying the president’s policy agenda in a very rosy light.

But spin is considered a sort of game of skill in Washington. The most skillful practitioners of this art are able to push their preferred message or gloss on events to reporters without relying on obvious, provable lies. Indeed, some reporters who have to work closely with these press aides even grow to admire them for their bullshitting ability.

Furthermore, it must be said that there are inevitably many times in which the White House spinners have a point. Reporters can get bad tips, they could be missing exculpatory information or important context, or they could simply mess up (as the Time reporter did with the MLK bust). At times like these, it’s good for everyone involved if the White House can put corrective factual information out there and be believed when they do so.

“In order to do the job of the press secretary right, you’ve always got to reflect the president but keep the respect of the press,” says Fleischer, who was the first White House press secretary for George W. Bush. “They don’t have to agree with you all the time, but you can clash respectfully if you can articulately speak for the president and know what you’re talking about. And you should always be truthful in all matters.”

But overall, Spicer’s mistake wasn’t in saying something misleading — that’s considered perfectly acceptable by many in the DC journalism community. His mistake wasn’t even in saying something flatly false, since policy is complex and political aides’ false statements about policy are often covered even-handedly by reporters who aren’t particularly versed in policy details.

Instead, Spicer’s blunder was saying something that could so easily be proven false with something as simple a mere picture. That broke the rules, and reporters felt it insulted their intelligence. So when he dialed back his spin to the “usual” levels on Monday, many White House reporters were much happier with his performance.

Fleischer, too, had kind words for Spicer’s Monday showing and thought it boded well for his tenure in the office. “I thought Sean did excellent today; he was top-notch. He demonstrated a real knowledge of what the president was thinking, he demonstrated a real command of policy, and he recovered Saturday’s fumble and ran it forward.” And, he added, “Sean’s tone was pitch perfect. He was tough, he was aggressive, but he was respectful.”

5) Why did Spicer do this?

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The obvious reason, of course, is that his boss, President Donald Trump, wanted him to. It was notable, for instance, that Spicer read his statement word for word rather than speaking off the cuff and also brought visual aids, suggesting that this was pretty carefully planned behind the scenes.

During the campaign, Trump complained repeatedly that the media allegedly wouldn’t cover his enormous crowds. It was common for him to exaggerate, for instance, how many people were stuck waiting outside because of meddling fire marshals. These claims often bore no resemblance to reality, but Trump seemed acutely interested in portraying himself as wildly popular.

And that has clearly carried over into the White House. Trump grew increasingly annoyed at the coverage of his crowd size throughout the day Saturday, according to sources close to him interviewed by the New York Times, Washington Post, and Politico. Since Trump is not particularly known for his poker face, this spilled over into public during his remarks to CIA employees earlier Saturday, when he complained about this topic and claimed that, to him, “it looked like a million and a half people!”

Other big names in the Trump administration got in the game too, with, for instance, White House counselor Kellyanne Conway claiming in a television appearance Sunday that Spicer was merely presenting “alternative facts,” and Priebus claiming the media was trying to delegitimize Trump’s presidency.

Still, Spicer’s statements particularly stood out for being so easily debunked. And interestingly, others in the Trump administration seemed to agree — or at least took advantage of the opportunity to shiv a rival (and a Priebus ally) in the press. Anonymous “people familiar with Mr. Trump’s thinking” soon leaked to the New York Times that the president thought Spicer “went too far.” And New York magazine’s Gabriel Sherman tweeted that according to a longtime Trump adviser, the president said that Spicer’s statement “was terrible.”

6) What’s the bigger picture here?

As it is so often, the bigger picture is about our new president, Donald Trump.

Trump has a complex and fraught relationship with the mainstream media. During the campaign, he greatly benefited from the sheer volume of press coverage he got. But he believes many members of the mainstream media are biased against him (and let’s be honest, it’s unlikely that many of these primarily coastal city dwellers are Trump fans). Yet he also seems to frequently watch TV and, if he feels aggrieved or inspired by what he’s watching at a particular moment, to tweet about it or react to it in some way. If this controversy is any indication, becoming the most powerful man in the world hasn’t changed any of this.

Now, inauguration crowd size is an inconsequential issue, but as J.M. Berger argues, we currently rely on the government for a great deal of factual and statistical information. “If we're entering a brave new world of government assault on consensus reality, that will have far-reaching consequences not yet obvious,” Berger tweeted. By denying the inaugural crowd size, some feared that Trump sought to create a parallel information universe for his supporters, where they’d simply trust him instead of the media.

And then there’s the media’s own reaction. When many journalists condemned Spicer on Saturday and praised him on Monday, they were sending the message that we’re not in some Orwellian dictatorship where the Trump administration can deny what’s indisputably true. What Trump’s aides need to do, they essentially signaled, is frame their denials and craft their spin in a way that’s harder to outright deny. Then things will be normal once again.


Watch: Sean Spicer's claims in first press briefing