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New National Park Service photos prove Obama's inauguration crowd was bigger than Trump's

The National Park Service has released hundreds of official images from Donald Trump’s inauguration ceremony in January that prove, once and for all, that the crowds in attendance were far smaller than those that attended Barack Obama’s inauguration in 2009.

Here’s a side-by-side comparison of Trump’s inauguration in 2017 with Obama’s in 2009, based on the newly released photos:

Photos released by the National Park Service of Trump’s 2017 inaugural address and Obama’s 2009 speech.
Sarah Frostenson/Vox

The NPS released the photos this week in response to a Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) request from BuzzFeed News and other media outlets.

Crowd turnout at Trump’s inauguration immediately became the subject of the administration’s first big battle with the media.

In a speech at the CIA the day after the inauguration, Trump complained: “I turn on one of the networks, and they show an empty field. I'm like, wait a minute. I made a speech. I looked out, the field was, it looked like a million, million and a half people.”

Shortly thereafter, White House press secretary Sean Spicer eviscerated the media in his first press conference, accusing reporters of using “intentionally framed” photos to make the crowd at Trump’s inauguration look smaller than it actually was.

Below is the photo that Vox published comparing crowds in attendance at Trump’s inauguration with Obama’s in 2009. We obtained the photo on the left from the Trump inaugural live stream. It lines up well with the photos now released by the NPS.

Side-by-side photo showing attendance at Obama’s 2009 inauguration and Trump’s 2017 inauguration

It’s possible the furor about crowd sizes might have been avoided altogether if the NPS had released official crowd estimates right after the inauguration. But the NPS has refrained from doing that since 1995 — when its estimate of 400,000 in attendance at the Million Man March set off a controversy with the march’s organizers, who estimated that 1.5 million had attended.

NPS broke that tradition in 2009, estimating that a record-breaking 1.8 million people were in attendance at Obama’s inauguration, thought to be the largest gathering ever on the National Mall.

But as I learned in speaking with Farouk El-Baz, the researcher responsible for settling the crowd dispute between the Million Man March organizers and the NPS, crowd counting is an intensely political — and costly — endeavor.

“There will always be a discussion of the results because all sides will be discussing to say, ‘No, that can’t be, I saw a million people myself,’” said El-Baz. “The only way to stop the controversy is to get the information systematically and at a specific time.”

El-Baz has made a series of detailed recommendations for how the NPS could improve its methods of crowd counting. But his proposal carried a hefty price tag of $20 million, and Congress swiftly vetoed the idea. As a result, in a 1997 appropriations bill, NPS was forbidden to spend federal funds on counting crowds. It still collects images from the air and on the ground, however. And in the case of Trump’s inauguration, the images tell a clear story.

To see all the photos that NPS released as part of the FOIA request, visit the NPS website.

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