A top adviser to President Donald Trump said Sunday that his press secretary, Sean Spicer, had offered “alternative facts” in a statement the day before from the White House briefing room in which he contested reports on the size of Trump’s inauguration audience.
“Sean Spicer, our press secretary, gave alternative facts,” Trump counselor Kellyanne Conway said on NBC’s “Meet the Press” on Sunday.
Her remark drew a riposte from the program’s host, Chuck Todd. “Look, alternative facts are not facts. They’re falsehoods.”
Conway’s characterization of Spicer’s statement exacerbated a growing rift between Trump’s White House and the news organizations that cover it, less than two days into his administration. On Saturday, his first full day in office, Trump and Spicer both made easily disproved claims, adding fuel to his opponents’ charges that the president is a habitual liar.
During a speech at CIA headquarters in Langley, Virginia, Trump accused the media — whom he termed “among the most dishonest human beings on Earth” — of inventing a “feud” between him and the U.S. intelligence community. In fact, Trump has fought a running public battle with intelligence community leaders for months over their conclusion that the Russian government intervened in the presidential campaign, going so far as to suggest that the CIA was the source of leaks against him.
“One last shot at me,” Trump said about the intelligence community Jan. 11 on Twitter, where he has over 21 million followers. “Are we living in Nazi Germany?”
In the same appearance at the Central Intelligence Agency, Trump mused that “a million or a million and a half” people had attended his inauguration.
There is no official crowd count for the event, but photographs from the same vantage point at about the same time of day clearly show that attendance was significantly less than at Barack Obama’s first inauguration in 2009, when city officials said that 1.8 million people gathered on the National Mall. The Washington subway system said that it had fewer riders by 11 a.m. Friday than at the same time on the day of Obama’s second, smaller inauguration in 2013.
Photographs and data from the subway system, Metro, also indicate that Saturday’s Women’s March on Washington, a protest against Trump, outdrew the inauguration. Over 1 million people rode Metro on Saturday, transit authority CEO Paul Wiedefeld said in a letter to employees. It was the second-busiest day in the system’s history, after Obama’s 2009 inauguration, he said. Total ridership on Friday was 570,557, which would not rank among the system’s highest ridership days.
Late in the afternoon on Saturday, Spicer took to the podium in the White House briefing room for the first time to say that Trump’s inauguration audience was the largest ever “both in person and around the globe.”
Using misleading subway ridership numbers, Spicer claimed that more people rode Metro on the day of Trump’s inauguration than during Obama’s second inauguration. Spicer compared ridership numbers at 11 a.m. for Obama’s 2013 inauguration with full-day numbers for Trump’s event, which would include many more people on return trips.
Full-day ridership for Obama’s first inauguration was a record 1.5 million. Metro ridership on an average weekday in 2016 was about 639,000.
Television coverage of Trump’s inauguration reached an average of 30.6 million viewers, according to Nielsen Mediafigures reported Saturday by The Hollywood Reporter. By comparison, almost 38 million people watched Obama’s first swearing-in ceremony in 2009, and 41.8 million viewers for Ronald Reagan’s first inaugural, according to data reported by Nielsen. The ratings for Trump don’t account for the increase in alternative methods of watching, such as streaming on mobile devices.
Spicer took no questions from reporters on Saturday and didn’t specify how many people the White House believes attended the inauguration.
“This is called a statement you’re told to make by the president,” former White House spokesman Ari Fleischer said on Twitter after Spicer’s remarks. “And you know the president is watching.”
After Conway’s remarks, Merriam-Webster weighed in on Twitter, posting a definition of the word “fact” and a link to its website. “Lookups for ‘fact’ spiked after Kellyanne Conway described false statements as ‘alternative facts’,” the dictionary publisher said.
White House Chief of Staff Reince Priebus said that media coverage indicating higher turnout at the Women’s March in Washington and at previous inaugurations compare to Trump’s inauguration amounted to attacks on the president’s political legitimacy.
“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 on “Fox News Sunday.” “We’re going to fight back tooth and nail every day, and twice on Sunday.”