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Press Coverage of Inaugural Crowd Size Gets Angry Rebuke From White House

Sean Spicer took no questions at his press briefing, which came hours after Trump told CIA officials in Langley that the media was inventing a feud between him and the intelligence community

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    (Published Saturday, Jan. 21, 2017)

    The new White House press secretary used his first press briefing to launch a furious tirade against media coverage of President Donald Trump's inauguration, calling it "shameful and wrong" for focusing on the fact that it was noticeably smaller than Barack Obama's in 2009.

    Sean Spicer harangued the media for not taking the administration's point of view on how to cover Trump's inauguration, and claimed that the National Mall was full during the president's oath of office when photographs from multiple vantage points showed that it wasn't. 

    "This was the largest audience to ever witness an inauguration, period, both in person and around the globe," Spicer said. "These attempts to lessen the enthusiasm of the inauguration are shameful and wrong."

    There is no evidence to suggest it was the largest ever, by Spicer's own admission that "no one had numbers" for official crowd size estimates, and Nielsen released data Saturday saying about 7 million fewer people watched Trump’s inauguration than Obama’s first in 2009. Ronald Reagan's 1981 inauguration remains the most-watched in American history, with 41.8 million viewers.

    This pair of photos shows a view of the crowd on the National Mall at the inaugurations of President Barack Obama, above, on Jan. 20, 2009, and President Donald Trump, below, on Jan. 20, 2017. They were both shot shortly before noon from the top of the Washington Monument. (AP, 58th Presidential Inaugural Committee)

    Spicer took no questions at the briefing, which came hours after Trump told CIA officials at Langley that the media was inventing a feud between him and the intelligence community, despite suggesting the intel community leaked information to the press and comparing it to something that would be done in Nazi Germany. Trump also said the crowd "looked like a million, million and a half people" to him.

    It's the latest bump in a rocky relationship between the Trump team and the national press corps, but the first to take place in the White House press briefing room. And it came as hundreds of thousands of demonstrators filled the streets in Washington and many cities both in America and abroad, all aimed at showing Trump that they will not be silent during his time in office. 

    Spicer did not comment on the Women's March on Washington and it's "sister marches" other than to stipulate there are no official estimates about crowd sizes at the rallies. 

    Trump had promised an "unbelievable, perhaps record-setting turnout" for his inauguration, but various planning groups predicted between 700,000 and 900,000 people would attend the swearing-in and parade. Obama drew an estimated 1.8 million people to the National Mall in 2009, though The Washington Post later questioned whether it was too high.

    Spicer claimed that spaces on the national mall with a total capacity of 720,000 were full. He also said that images were distorted by protective plastic lawn coverings, and incorrectly claimed they had never been used before — they were used during the 2013 inauguration as well.

    The turf covering Spicer referred to has been used in multiple events on the Mall, a National Park Service representative confirmed in a statement. It was not in use in 2009, before restoration began in 2011.

    Spicer did not provide any pictorial evidence backing up his claim that the inaugural crowd was the largest ever, though ahead of the briefing, TV screens on either side of the podium showed pictures from behind the president. There were large crowds in the foreground, while the Washington Monument, where crowds appeared to be sparse in other shots, was far in the distance.

    D.C. Metro released ridership numbers for 11 a.m. on the most recent inauguration days showing a marked drop in rides between Obama's 2009 inaugural (513,000) and Trump's (193,000).

    Crowd sizes are notoriously hard to estimate, and the National Park Service has not offered official estimates since it was threatened with a defamation lawsuit by organizers of the Million Man March in 1995.

    Spicer also singled out a reporter's tweet that said a bust of Martin Luther King Jr. was missing from the Oval Office. It was incorrect — the bust is still in the office — and the reporter corrected the report and apologized.

    Spicer called that tweet "irresponsible and reckless." But less than 24 hours before, Spicer tweeted that he accepted the reporter's apology. 

    Hillary Clinton's former campaign spokesman, Brian Fallon, tweeted that Spicer was "a failure in this job on his first full day" for not refusing to lie to the press.

    Watch President Trump's Full Inaugural Address

    [NATL] Watch President Donald Trump's Full Inaugural Address
    On Jan. 20, 2017, Donald Trump was sworn in as the 45th president of the United States.
    (Published Friday, Jan. 20, 2017)

    Ari Fleischer, the press secretarty for George W. Bush, noted on Twitter that it was the kind of statement "you're told to make by the President," who you know is watching. 

    "So, while press is stunned & can't believe it, Sean is getting praised by his boss & co-workers now. MSM is from Venus. WH is from Mars," he said.