If only White House Press Secretary Sean Spicer had stuck with his strong material. In the beginning of his appearance at the White House briefing room on Saturday afternoon, Spicer took aim at Time magazine White House correspondent Zeke Miller. On duty on Inauguration Day as a pool reporter, Miller concluded that the new occupant of the White House had removed a bust of Martin Luther King Jr. He fed that information into the pool report, and others tweeted out the information.
Which turned out to be wrong.
“This was irresponsible and reckless,” said Spicer at his appearance. Fair point. Donald Trump, after all, came to power in part by exploiting racial divisions in the United States. He was appropriately denounced as a bigot and a racist. To report that he’d booted a bust of King from the Oval Office would surely help to cement his history.
Yet Spicer wasn’t content to stop there, while he was ahead. Among Trump folks, bashing the media is such a compulsion as to rule out quitting while you’re ahead.
From firm ground, Spicer fled to brown ground — the wintry fields of the Mall, where, he maintained, a record crowd had amassed on the previous day for the president’s inaugural address. “This was the first time in our nation’s history that floor coverings have been used to protect the grass on the Mall. That had the effect of highlighting any areas where people were not standing, while in years past the grass eliminated this visual,” said Spicer, in accounting for why people had reached the conclusion that previous inaugurals had attracted crowds greater than the one at Trump’s. “This was the largest audience to ever witness an inauguration — period — both in person and around the globe,” said Spicer.
With that, the U.S. media switched into a familiar mode from the 2016 campaign, that of churning out fact-checks of very easily disprovable statements of falsity. The Associated Press ruled that Spicer had added to the “misstatements” of his own boss regarding crowd size. Noting that Spicer had offered no evidence for his largest-ever inauguration contention, the AP wrote, “photos taken during Barack Obama’s 2009 inauguration showed substantially more people on the Mall.” Also wrong was the contention about floor coverings, not to mention a separate claim about magnetometers.
In a particularly clumsy barb, Spicer said this: “Even the New York Times printed a photograph showing a misrepresentation of the crowd in the original Tweet in their paper, which showed the full extent of the support, depth in crowd, and intensity that existed,” he said. What did that mean? When the Erik Wemple Blog asked the newspaper about the matter, it replied that it wasn’t sure what Spicer was addressing. And since he never took any questions at the briefing, it was hard to tell.
A spokeswoman for the paper noted that Times reporter Binyamin Appelbaum had issued this much-trafficked tweet:
According to the Times, there is nothing “inaccurate” in that tweet whatsoever.
Perhaps this is the better photo to which Spicer referred:
In any case, Appelbaum didn’t need terribly sophisticated people-counting technology to debunk the idea that Friday’s event was the highest-attended inauguration ever.
The job of White House press secretary is a difficult one. The challenge is to stand at the podium and represent the thoughts and vision of the president of the United States, to stand in for an officeholder busy with meetings and travel and more meetings. On the first full day of the Trump administration, Spicer did this to perfection, representing in one six-minute session the penchant for falsehood and mendacity that Trump displayed throughout the presidential campaign.
Would that betrayal of the truth were the only offense that Spicer committed from the podium. It wasn’t. After he slammed media organizations for their responsible reporting of the turnout for the Trump inauguration, he said, “These attempts to lessen the enthusiasm of the inauguration are shameful and wrong.” For those worried that the Trump years might just corrode democracy and open the way to authoritarianism, here’s an early signpost: Crime against the State No. 1: No citizen shall attempt to lessen the enthusiasm of the inauguration of the Supreme Leader.
It stands to reason that Spicer & Co. would have to fabricate a case against inaugural shrinkage. The bill of particulars against Miller, after all, wasn’t sufficiently sweeping to justify an entire session dedicated to hammering the media. More was needed in order to ramp up this warning from Spicer: “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. We’re going to hold the press accountable, as well,” he said.
Thus went Spicer’s fulfillment of the Trump administration’s brand promise. Sure, Trump as presidential candidate spoke about a wall, an end to Obamacare, a return of jobs to the United States. He was most consistent, however, on the media — bashing it, banning it, scaring it, tweeting about it. Even if Miller had avoided his bust mistake, and even if the media had raved about inaugural attendance, it’s a fair bet that Spicer would have found cause to deliver the same message. The idea, it appears at this early stage, is not so much to answer the media’s questions as it is to discredit them before they’re even asked.
Updated to include another tweet from Time’s Miller.