On Saturday night, White House press secretary Sean Spicer unleashed a brutal thrashing of the press, repeatedly lying about the size of the crowd that attended President Trump’s January 20 inaugural festivities. His bizarre, reality-defying statement was widely disparaged by journalists across much of the political spectrum.
Today, in the first official White House press briefing of the Trump administration, Spicer instead offered a gentler gaslighting. The effect was just as insidious -- he manipulated the press and tried to delegitimize criticism with falsehoods. But the method -- without Saturday’s yelling and direct attacks on the media -- went down much easier with his targets.
Some journalists and pundits rushed to praise his effort and suggest it represented a “reboot” of the Trump administration's relationship with the media:
In fact, Spicer peppered his press briefing with a series of comments that implicitly urged reporters and the public to defy their own memories of past events and set the stage for a new reality in which facts are malleable. Here are four such cases.
“Sometimes We Can Disagree With The Facts”
Roughly 20 minutes into the question and answer period, ABC News’ Jonathan Karl raised the issue of Saturday’s press statement, asking Spicer, “Is it your intention to always tell the truth from that podium, and will you pledge never to knowingly say something that is nonfactual?” Spicer responded, “It is” -- then went on to say that “sometimes we can disagree with the facts.” He explained that he might occasionally pass on information that is incomplete, but his “intention is never to lie to you,” adding that he would “tell you the facts as I know them, and if we make a mistake, I’ll do our best to correct it.”
Spicer went on to call this a “two-way street,” comparing administration falsehoods to the media making mistakes and saying that it wouldn’t be appropriate in those cases to say the press was “intentionally lying.”
Spicer’s remarks demand that reporters forget that he had, reading from a written statement, accused the press of deliberately lying on Saturday night. He said photographs of the inaugural proceedings had been “intentionally framed” to “minimize the enormous support that had gathered on the National Mall.”
The latest comments also demand that reporters forget that President Trump, in a speech at CIA headquarters that day, also accused the press of deliberately lying. He called them “among the most dishonest human beings on Earth,” and accused them of deliberately undercounting the inaugural turnout, saying, “We caught them, and we caught them in a beauty. And I think they're going to pay a big price.” Again, this happened two days ago.
Believing Spicer’s too-cute claim that he just happened to err, the way that journalists sometimes makes mistakes, also requires reporters to ignore the vast array of false statements that Spicer crammed into his brief statement Saturday, all of which, curiously, happened to aid his premise that the press had been lying and the Trump inauguration had a record turnout.
“For Too Long It's Been About Stats”
That’s a reporter spending three minutes trying to pin Spicer down on which unemployment statistic the administration considers official -- and thus on which it should be judged. Spicer refuses to provide a straight answer, saying that “for too long it’s been about stats, ... about what number we are looking at, as opposed to what face we are looking at.”
Trump spent more than a year on the campaign trail using a variety of statistics to falsely claim that up to 42 percent of American people were unemployed. That stat was widely denounced for including all people “not in the workforce,” including retirees and stay-at-home parents. Spicer would like reporters to forget about that -- and create a reality in which unemployment statistics are irrelevant, and thus Trump cannot be held accountable for them.
“I Don’t Know How You Can Interpret It Differently”
You’ve gotta be fucking kidding me with this:
REPORTER: So are you retracting your claim on Saturday that it was the largest crowd “in person” for an inauguration?
SPICER: That’s not what I said.
REPORTER: Well you said, “This was the largest audience to ever witness an inauguration, period. Both in person and around the globe.”
REPORTER: Both in person –
SPICER: To witness – and around the globe. Yes, in total audience it was.
REPORTER: In total audience but not simply in person.
SPICER: But that – right, but again, I didn’t say in person, both in person and around the globe. To witness it.
REPORTER: You’re saying those together?
SPICER: No, that’s actually what I said. It’s not – I don’t know how you can interpret it differently, that’s literally what I said. To witness it in person and around the globe. Total audience, yes.
Literally everyone interpreted it differently because that’s what that collection of words -- words written ahead of time to be delivered publicly, not comments off the cuff -- actually mean when they are placed next to each other.
“This Rift That So-Called Exists”
Asked why Trump had chosen the CIA headquarters as the venue for a speech to discuss his crowd size, Spicer claimed that Trump “kept hearing about this rift that existed” with the CIA and wanted to go before their staff to tell them that “what you are hearing on television or in reports about this rift are” are incorrect. He added that Trump’s message to the CIA was, “You see and hear all this stuff on TV about this rift that so-called exists,” but “it doesn't matter.” According to Spicer, Trump also wanted the CIA to hear “how much he respects them -- how much he wanted to dispel the myth that there was a quote-unquote ‘rift.’”
Where did the “myth” come from and why are there so many “reports” on it? As dictated by Spicer, it came out of nowhere, the result of the media. Trump himself attributed it to his “running war with the media,” composed of “the most dishonest human beings on earth,” who “sort of made it sound like I had a feud with the intelligence community.”
Here’s why journalists reported on the “rift that so-called exists”:
After Spicer’s briefing today, Media Matters president Angelo Carusone broke down the impact of the last three days: