The ongoing spat about the size of the audience at Donald Trump's inauguration, in itself a trivial issue, is significant because it highlights the new president's vanity, pettiness, lack of discipline, and casual disregard for the truth. Presidential counselor Kellyanne Conway took that last character flaw to a new level in a Meet the Press interview yesterday when she described White House Press Secretary Sean Spicer's verifiably false assertions about attendance at the inauguration as "alternative facts."
Conway was responding to host Chuck Todd's question about the dubious decision to have Spicer, in his first official interaction with the press as the president's spokesman, peddle "a provable falsehood when it comes to a small and petty thing like inaugural crowd size." Here is what Spicer said on Saturday:
Let's go through the facts. We know that from the platform where the President was sworn in, to 4th Street, it holds about 250,000 people. From 4th Street to the media tent is about another 220,000. And from the media tent to the Washington Monument, another 250,000 people. All of this space was full when the president took the Oath of Office. We know that 420,000 people used the D.C. Metro public transit yesterday, which actually compares to 317,000 that used it for President Obama's last inaugural. This was the largest audience to ever witness an inauguration—period—both in person and around the globe.
Almost none of that is true. Aerial photos of the National Mall clearly show it was far from full during Trump's speech. A crowd expert consulted by The New York Times estimated that Trump's audience was one-third as big as Barack Obama's in 2009. About 31 million Americans watched Trump's inauguration on TV, compared to 38 million who watched Obama's in 2009 and 42 million who watched Ronald Reagan's in 1981. The Washington, D.C., transit authority counted 570,557 Metro rides on Friday, compared to 1.1 million on the day of Obama's first inauguration and 782,000 on the day of his second.
According to Conway, Spicer "gave alternative facts." To which Todd replied: "Alternative facts are not facts. They're falsehoods." Undeterred, Conway used the same formulation toward the end of an exchange in which Todd unsuccessfully pressed her to answer his original question, which concerned not the veracity of Spicer's statement but the political strategy behind what Todd called "this ridiculous litigation of crowd size." Conway said Todd's description of the issue reflected the news media's bias against Trump:
Your job is not to call things ridiculous that are said by our press secretary and our president. That's not your job. You're supposed to be 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 and put alternative facts out there.
In other words, we have to lie because the press is so unfair to us. The lying, of course, only invites more negative coverage, which confirms the administration's complaints and gratifies Trump supporters who see journalistic hostility as validation of the billionaire bully's anti-establishment credentials. Presumably that is the strategy, to the extent that there is one, behind "this ridiculous litigation of crowd size," although for obvious reasons Conway could not say so plainly.
Spicer was amplifying what Trump said during his speech at CIA headquarters on Saturday, which included the demonstrably false claim that the crowd at his inauguration filled the National Mall "all the way back to the Washington monument" and numbered something like 1.5 million. The Times reports that "most of Mr. Trump's advisers" disagreed with the decision to pick a fight about the size of the audience at the inauguration, and it sounds like the skeptics included Conway. During her interview with Todd, she kept trying to change the subject to Trump's policy agenda, saying, "I don't think ultimately presidents are judged by crowd sizes at their inauguration." She conspicuously refrained from defending the numbers cited by Trump and Spicer. "I don't think you can prove those numbers one way or the other," she said. "There's no way to really quantify crowds."
While there is always some uncertainty about crowd size estimates (which is why they're called estimates), it's clear that, contrary to what Trump and Spicer said, the National Mall was not full on Friday and there were more people there for Obama's first inauguration, which also had a bigger U.S. TV audience. There is no shame in admitting that. The inauguration of the first black president was a watershed event, the D.C. area is heavily Democratic, and the weather was nicer in 2009. None of these factors reflect negatively on Trump. The same cannot be said about his reflexive insistence that everything he does is the biggest and the best, his temper tantrums when those claims are questioned, or his obliviousness to how such behavior makes him look: like a spoiled child instead of a grown man.
The fact that we have a ridiculous president does not mean he cannot accomplish serious things, and maybe even good things. But trying to paper over his manifest flaws with "alternative facts" is no way to persuade skeptical Americans of that possibility.