Donald Trump’s press secretary kept the media waiting for more than an hour today, and then when Sean Spicer finally deigned to appear for his first White House press briefing, he proceeded to hector reporters, tell demonstrable lies, and all but fire himself out of a cannon in the general direction of the press corps. On Day 2 of the Trump presidency, a screeching red-eyed man declared war on the media and reality itself.
The proximate causes of the tantrum were the media’s estimates of the size of the crowd at the inauguration and a journalist’s incorrect report about the removal of an Oval Office bust of Martin Luther King Jr. It turns out the bust had not been removed, after all, a mistake the reporter acknowledged and apologized for. But Spicer, calling it “irresponsible and reckless,” was trying to score some cheap points in order to take on the bigger target—the accurate reporting on the thin crowds at Friday’s inauguration.
“Some members of the media were engaged in deliberately false reporting,” Spicer said as he was gradually swallowed by his suit. He added that photos “were intentionally framed in a way to minimize the enormous support that had gathered on the National Mall.”
But, anyone might say, the photographs are pretty clear, aren’t they? Kind of hard to argue with the side-by-side photos that compared the crowds from a previous inauguration.
The problem, Spicer assured the press in a jaw-dropping prodigy of illogic, is that it was the first time the National Park Service had laid out white panels to protect the grass and that “highlighted where people weren’t standing.” He made Baghdad Bob look like Edward R. Murrow.
In the end, “no one had numbers,” Spicer said, before adding that “this was the largest audience to ever witness the inauguration—period. Both in person and around the globe.”
It’s of course unclear how he could come to such a conclusion, but flat-out lying seems to be part of it. Spicer mentioned Metro ridership to illustrate how huge the inauguration was, when the Washington Metropolitan Area Transit Authority actually tweeted out preliminary numbers indicating that there were fewer riders during this year’s celebration than during the 2009 and 2013 inaugurations. The Washington Post reported that 570,557 people used the city’s metro system on Friday, which was lower than both the 2009 and 2013 inaugurations.
Spicer went on to put the press on notice: “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 it goes two ways. We’re going to hold the press accountable as well.”
Then the new press secretary made a point that should have every White House reporter wondering whether he or she shouldn’t start boycotting these types of briefings during the Trump administration: “As long as he serves as the messenger for this incredible movement he will take his message directly to the American people.”
CNN seemed to suspect something was amiss and made the decision not to air the press briefing live. “The decision was to monitor the statement & then report on it,” CNN’s Brian Stelter wrote on Twitter.
White House veterans were evidently shocked by what they heard. “I’ve never seen anything like this where it was so intense, so harsh and passionate right off the beginning,” said CBS’s Major Garrett. Other observers noted how strange the whole thing was. “It is embarrassing, as an American, to watch this briefing by Sean Spicer from the podium at the White House,” conservative commentator William Kristol, who has long been opposed to Trump, wrote on Twitter.
Spicer spoke not long after Trump had personally blasted the media during a speech at the CIA headquarters, where he also criticized their reporting on the inauguration attendance and named the Time reporter who had incorrectly said the president had removed King’s bust from the Oval Office. It could not have been a coincidence that these attacks came on a day that the new president was being protested by crowds vastly outnumbering the celebrants at his party on Friday. Lying worked in the campaign, and now the habit seems to have carried over to the White House. The ball is now in the media’s court.