Spicer Stands by Inaugural Audience Claim in First Briefing

  • ‘Our intention is never to lie,’ Trump press secretary says
  • Spicer bases claim of biggest audience on online viewers

White House Spokesman Spicer: Intention Is Never to Lie

White House press secretary Sean Spicer stood by his claim that Donald Trump enjoyed the largest inauguration audience in history, citing people watching online, and pledged that he would not lie to reporters after a weekend of confrontations with the media.

"I think sometimes we can disagree with the facts," Spicer said on Monday at his first formal news briefing since Trump’s inauguration on Friday. "Our intention is never to lie to you. You’re in the same boat.

"I’m going to come out here and tell you the facts as I know them and when I make a mistake I’m going to correct it," Spicer said.

During his briefing, Spicer also:

  • Announced a Trump meeting Tuesday with heads of the big three U.S. automakers; 
  • Said the president hasn’t discussed with intelligence officials the ongoing investigation into Russian interference in the presidential election;
  • Declined to answer questions on whether the U.S. would move its embassy in Israel to Jerusalem by the end of Trump’s term or whether the president intends to send U.S. troops back to Iraq to seize oilfields.

Spicer added that Trump "has not made any indication he would stop" a U.S. government investigation into Russian meddling in the election.

No Correction

Asked by ABC News reporter Jonathan Karl if he would correct his claim Saturday -- in an angry statement to the press after which he took no questions -- that Trump had the largest inauguration audience in history, Spicer declined.

"It was the most watched inaugural," he said. "There were tens of millions of people who watched it online, on a device. It’s unquestionable."

He invited reporters to provide any information disproving the claim.

Spicer also offered an explanation for the weekend press statements disputing crowd claims, saying they stemmed from frustration at a mainstream media that had regularly undervalued the power of Trump’s political appeal from the announcement of his candidacy through election night.

He cited early political analysis concluding Trump wouldn’t win the Republican nomination and later commentary that he was wasting time devoting campaign resources to states such as Wisconsin and Michigan, political battlegrounds which Democrats traditionally had controlled but which Trump won on election day.

Test of Trust

Spicer’s first formal question-and-answer session from the podium is a test of whether he can rebuild trust with the media after a rocky start.

"The long-term consequences of not issuing some kind of correction is, he runs the risk of impugning the White House," said Ben Mullin, a managing editor at the Poynter Institute, a journalism advocacy, education and ethics organization. "Rarely do you see a press secretary say something that’s demonstrably false. If his statements are impeachable what does that say for the U.S. federal government writ large?"

Spicer appeared to walk back one erroneous claim during his statement on Saturday, when he used misleading numbers for ridership on Washington’s subway system to suggest that Trump’s inauguration crowd was larger than former President Obama’s in 2013. He said he had gotten the data from Trump’s inauguration committee, which had relied on a third party he didn’t name.

"Knowing what we know now, we can tell that WMATA’s numbers were different," Spicer said, using an acronym for Metro, the transit authority that runs the subway. "It wasn’t like we made them up."

Breaking Tradition

Spicer signaled that the new administration will depart from at least one White House press tradition. He skipped over major news organizations for the first several questions at the beginning of his briefing. He called on a reporter for the New York Post, Daniel Halper, to ask the first question, instead of recognizing the Associated Press, which has traditionally opened White House briefings.

Halper is a former online editor of the Weekly Standard, a politically conservative magazine, and author of "Clinton Inc.," a book critical of Trump’s campaign opponent, Democrat Hillary Clinton.

The next two questions went to the Christian Broadcasting Network and Univision.

Trump Claims

Trump triggered the controversy himself on Saturday, the same day as the Women’s March on Washington, a protest against his presidency that outdrew the inauguration. During a visit to the Central Intelligence Agency’s headquarters in Langley, Virginia, Trump accused the "dishonest" media of inventing a "feud" between himself and the intelligence community. That was not accurate: Trump spent weeks before his inauguration raising tensions with the CIA and other agencies with tweets criticizing their conclusion that the Russian government intervened in the U.S. presidential election.

Trump then claimed without evidence that major news outlets under-reported the size of his inaugural crowds. He mused that the crowd looked to him to be 1 million to 1.5 million people, a tally unsupported by photographs, Metro ridership data or any other evidence.

Spicer backed his boss hours later, taking to the podium in the White House briefing room for the first time to castigate the media and make his own claim about the size of the inauguration audience, “the largest ever both in person and around the globe.” He didn’t specifically cite online viewers at the time, took no questions from reporters and didn’t specify how many people the White House believes attended the inauguration.

Photographs from the same vantage point at about the same time of day clearly show that in-person attendance was significantly less on Friday than at Barack Obama’s first inauguration in 2009, when city officials said that 1.8 million people gathered on the National Mall. There is no official crowd count for the event.

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