This should have been a celebratory weekend for the new Trump administration – a jubilant time for newly inaugurated President Donald Trump and his top aides who assumed the reins of power on Friday with a populist vow to push aside the political establishment and “Make America Great Again.”
Instead, Trump’s first full day as president on Saturday was one bitter fighting with the news media and the former head of the CIA. At the same time, millions of Americans marched in Washington and scores of cities across the country to protest Trump’s election and policies that threaten women’s rights, illegal immigrants, health care coverage for more than 20 million people, and long-standing international alliances.
The day’s events were both breathtaking and alarming, as Trump and his new White House press secretary, Sean Spicer, appeared unhinged at times as they clashed with reporters and bitterly complained that the media had vastly understated the size of the crowd on hand for Trump’s swearing in ceremony. The White House also complained about what proved to be an inaccurate tweet by a Time Magazine reporter that Trump had removed a bust of Martin Luther King Jr. from the Oval Office.
Trump appears to be digging in for what is likely to be a long and contentious relationship with the news media that could mean less access for reporters or even eviction from the current White House press room. White House Chief of Staff Reince Priebus did little on Sunday to try to calm the roiled waters, declaring on Fox News Sunday that Trump won’t allow his critics in the media and elsewhere to delegitimize his presidency.
“I’m saying there’s an obsession by the media to delegitimize this president and we are not going to sit around and let it happen” Priebus said. “We’re going to fight back, tooth and nail, every day.”
Without conceding that the president and Spicer had grossly exaggerated the size of the inaugural day crowd, claiming that as many as 1.5 million people had turned out when it was closer to 250,000, Priebus said the controversy “is really not about crowd size, what it’s about is honesty in the media.
Trump’s senior adviser, Kellyanne Conway, also complained about the “unfair” treatment of Trump during an appearance on NBC’s Meet the Press. She added, “I don’t think ultimately presidents are judged by crowd sizes at their inauguration, I think they are judged by their accomplishments.”
Conway and Meet the Press moderator Chuck Todd then engaged in an extraordinary, protracted argument over why Trump sent Spicer into the White House press room to deliver an obvious lie about the size of the inaugural crowd on Friday.
“Why was it necessary to send out the press secretary on his first day in office to utter a provable falsehood that now calls into question everything the press secretary will say from here on out for many Americans?” Todd asked. “What was the motive to have this ridiculous litigation of crowd size?”
“Your job is not to call something ridiculous that is said by our press secretary and our president, that’s not your job,” Conway fired back. “You’re a news person, you’re not an opinion columnist. Think about what you just said to your viewers. That’s why we feel compelled to go out and clear the air.”
Conway never answered Todd’s question, saying instead that the news media should devote more energy to highlighting the “provable, quantifiable facts” that Trump outlined in his acceptance speech, including the “devastation and destruction” in our schools, with our health care system, the economy and national security efforts against terrorists.
For his part, Trump spent the morning downplaying the importance of Saturday’s protest in Washington by an estimated half million people, tweeting that “Watched protests yesterday but was under the impression that we just had an election! Why didn’t these people vote? Celebs hurt cause badly.”
Later, however, he leavened his critique, tweeting that “Peaceful protests are a hallmark of our democracy. Even if I don’t always agree, I recognize the rights of people to express their views.
On Saturday, Trump used a visit to the CIA – intended as a peacemaking gesture after weeks of clashing with the intelligence community over its assessments of Russian hacking and interference in the U.S. election—to tee off against journalists, who he called “the most dishonest human beings on Earth,” according to an account by The Washington Post.
Trump called out Zeke Miller, the Time magazine reporter who mistakenly tweeted a report that the Martin Luther King Jr. bust had been removed from the Oval Office and subsequently apologized and corrected the report. But other reporters had already reported the missing bust as fact. “They said that ‘Donald Trump took down the bust — the statue of Dr. Martin Luther King. But it was right there,” Trump told the CIA gathering. “There was a cameraman that was in front of it.”
Trump sought to express his gratitude to the intelligence community, despite repeatedly railing against it during the transition and likening alleged leaks of unflattering and unsubstantiated intelligence about Trump to a Nazi-style smear. Standing before the CIA’s hallowed wall of stars honoring the agency’s fallen, Trump launched into a rambling, campaign-style monolog blaming the media for stoking dissension between him and intelligence agencies.
“I have a running war with the media,” Trump declared. “They are among the most dishonest human beings on Earth, right?”
Trump’s statement drew laughter and applause from dozens of CIA employees who showed up for the meeting on their day off and other Trump loyalists. But John Brennan, who resigned Friday as CIA Director at the conclusion of the Obama administration, said through a spokesperson that he was saddened and angry at Trump’s “despicable display of self-aggrandizement in front of CIA’s Memorial Wall of Agency heroes.” Brennan added that Trump “should be ashamed of himself.”
Spicer later summoned reporters to the White House briefing room for a tongue-lashing, falsely insisting that more than 700,000 people stretched from the West Front of the Capitol down the Mall to the Washington Monument to observe Trump’s inauguration. He falsely insisted that the turnout was “the largest audience to ever witness an inauguration, period – both in person and around the globe.”
Figures from Nielsen confirm that 31 million people watched the Trump inauguration worldwide—but that was still 9 million less than Obama’s inauguration in 2009.
Many reporters were shocked that Spicer would use his maiden appearance at the White House podium to advance the preposterous notion that the turnout for Trump’s inauguration was larger than that of President Barack Obama’s 2009 inauguration, or that Trump’s crowd reached all the way to the Washington Monument. Side by side aerial photographs of the Mall taken shortly before noon during those two events showed that Trump had grossly exaggerated the size of his crowd.
Spicer refused to take questions from the reporters but set an ominous tone before stalking out of the press room: “There’s been a lot of talk in the media about the responsibility to hold Donald Trump accountable, and I’m here to tell you that it goes two ways,” he said. “We’re going to hold the press accountable as well.”