The Trump Administration has a rocky kick off this week due to both things outside of its control and things of its own making. First there was the planned protests against the new President — demonstrations both on Inaugural Day and the next day that I criticized. Those were outside the control of the Administration. However, then there was a remarkably disappointing and lackluster Inaugural speech followed by a truly dreadful press conference. This was the first press conference for the Administration – a key moment for any new Administration. Instead of emphasizing the positive and taking control of the news cycle with strategic announcements, White House Press secretary Sean Spicer largely criticized the press and then made a series a highly dubious factual assertions about the size of Trump’s audience. It was a performance that even stalwart supporters like Charles Krauthammer on Fox called “weird.” Likewise, Fox News has described Spicer’s facts as “incorrect.” Most of us who have previously watched or covered Inaugurations thought that the crowd seemed smaller. So what? Tens of millions of people voted for Trump. That is the measure that counts. Yet, Spicer went on the attack with some shaky assertions and guaranteed that this tempest in a teapot would be the focus of the next news cycle — and gave critics an opening to lambast the new president. I have said this before that friends of this President need to call him out when his Administration goofs if they want this Administration to succeed. This is one such moment and shows an early lack of discipline and message.
In fairness to Spicer, the news conference seemed to follow the President’s lead, not Spicer’s. Indeed, President Trump was widely criticized for standing in front of the memorial wall at the CIA and went off on a tangent against reports of his crowd being smaller than Obama’s. It was viewed as highly inappropriate and trivial at such a memorial. The other agenda item was to blast some unknown reporter for a Time reporter’s story that the MLK bust was removed from the Oval Office. Ok, sloppy reporting. Maybe even too eager to find a fault. But that is the stuff of your first news conference. I have no doubt that there are people looking for every negative angle to make the Administration look bad, but you do not have to help them by taking the bait.
Part of the role of White House Spokesman is not to just be the sword and shield for the Administration (though it appears Spicer will be more sword than shield). He is also the key liaison to the media and needs to develop a sense of trust with these reporters. No president can lead by tweet. He must interact with journalists and they need to have some level of trust in facts being put forward by an Administration. The proper thing is for the spokesman to ream out the reporter in the bust story and let it be known that there was a dressing down for a false story. That is why this start was so dreadful.
As Politico and other outfits have detailed, the factual assertions of Spicer appear either demonstrably false and highly questionable. Most people, including myself, thought that the crowed looked smaller. That was not a big deal to me. President Obama was the nation’s first black president and there was an outpouring of supporters. Moreover, there was the promise of protests and higher security at this event that probably did dampen attendance. In the end it really does not matter. Trump and his aides seemed to “protest too much” and revealed a degree of insecurity in constantly returning to the issue of counting attendees. He received almost half the votes in the country — around 47 percent. While he lost the popular vote, that is immaterial in our electoral system and he won an overwhelming number of states and delegates. In other words, he has nothing to prove.
Instead, the Administration telegraphed nothing but insecurity in lashing out at reporters, which were virtually universal on the size of the crowd. Spicer tried to argue that this was the first time that the nation used floor coverings, which created an image of a smaller crowd. As Politico noted, that is not true. Coverings were previously used. However, I do not personally recall such large spaces being laid out in white coverings.
Spicer also said that the worst angles were used by some in the media. He may be right. I have been critical of the coverage of Trump during the campaign, which I viewed as overtly hostile. Yet, I watched the inauguration and it did not seem true, as Spicer claimed that “All of this space [from Trump’s platform to the Washington Monument] was full when the president took the Oath of Office.” There was an impressive crowd near the platform but it thinned toward the monument.
Spicer appears clearly wrong in saying that “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.” He is right about the 317,000 figure. This was the number of people who traveled before 11 am — in time for the Inaugural speech. If the same period is used for this Inauguration, the figure for Trump would be 193,000. In terms of the whole day, there were 570,557 — a very large number. However, in 2013, the full day ridership was 782,000 and in 2009 it was 1.1 million.
Perhaps the worst assertion was that “This was the largest audience to ever witness an inauguration — period — both in person and around the globe.” That statement was instantly ridiculed. Obama’s 2009 Inauguration was a record breaker. Moreover the television audience was smaller: 30.6 million compared to 41.8 million for Reagan in 1981 and 37.7 million for Obama in 2009.
Again, we are only crunching number because the White House used the first press conference almost exclusively to this dispute. Instead of focusing on the hundreds of thousands of people who were there and their celebration in pulling off one of the greatest upsets in U.S. political history, Spicer (and the President). made this the framing story of the first 24 hours of this Administration. Given the President’s statements at the CIA, I do not believe that this was just some tangent that Spicer unilaterally decided to take for the first press conference. However, if this Administration is to flourish, it will need to gain greater control over messaging and timing.
Once again, I do not fault Spicer in criticizing some of the angles and coverage. He must deal with what must be (and I have no aerial pictures to support this assertion) the most hostile press corps of any new president in history. He is trying to push back, but that is not the type of message that you want to be the near exclusive focus of your first conference. It is the type of thing that you release with photos outside of the conference and, if necessary, take questions on the issue while emphasizing new changes. Trump has started to keep his promises on the ACA and other issues. That should have been the focus of the conference to convey that Trump remains committed to being a vehicle for change. Rather than convey strength, the conference conveyed a hypersensitivity and insecurity.
Here is the first official press conference: