If truth is the first casualty of war, will facts be the first casualty of the Trump administration?
President Donald Trump has been in office for less than a week and already Americans have endured a weekend of official falsehoods, misrepresentations, and “alternative facts” – as Trump counselor Kellyanne Conway put it to NBC’s Chuck Todd.
Trump’s public attack on the U.S. intelligence community in recent months was not a media concoction, as he insisted in a speech to the Central Intelligence Agency over the weekend. “Dishonest” reporters did not invent his claims that intelligence reports of Russian hacking during the election were “ridiculous” and politically motivated.
Journalists were not responsible for Trump’s tweet comparing intelligence agencies to Nazis after the leak of an embarrassing dossier about him. The talking point that American intelligence agencies were “the same people that said Saddam Hussein had weapons of mass destruction” came not from news organizations, but from Trump’s transition team.
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His inauguration crowd did not fill the National Mall “all the way back to the Washington Monument,” as he bragged to the CIA for reasons that remain elusive. It is false that, as he claimed in the speech, the rain “stopped immediately” as he delivered his Inauguration Day address.
Aerial photos showed less than half of the mall to be filled Friday. Rain fell steadily during his speech, and continued after. There is no evidence to buttress his claim that “God looked down and said, ‘We are not going to let it rain on your speech.’ ”
Lies about small things have a way of morphing into lies about big things. Kill faith in facts – and faith in a free press, which is, after all, the public’s eyes and ears – and institutions crumble.
The evidence cited Saturday by Trump Press Secretary Sean Spicer did not show that Trump’s was “the largest audience to ever witness an inauguration – period – both in person and around the globe.” Aerial photos showed Barack Obama’s 2009 inaugural crowd really did fill the mall, and then some. Nielsen reports showed Obama’s audience that year was more than 7 million viewers bigger than Trump’s, and Ronald Reagan’s 1981 ratings were bigger still.
At a press briefing Monday, Spicer said he meant also to include “tens of millions” who watched online. Live streaming data on concurrent users reported by CNN and Akamai Technologies, which supported streaming for several sites, did give Trump an edge over 2009 eyeballs, but not enough to make up for his smaller TV audience.
Parsing crowd sizes and Twitter jeers may sound petty. And a lie is not the same as an unintentional factual error, such as the one made by a pool reporter from Time who inaccurately reported – and then speedily corrected – on Friday that the bust of Martin Luther King Jr. had been taken out of the Oval Office when, in fact, he couldn’t see it because his view was blocked by a Secret Service agent and a door.
But there’s a larger point here, and it isn’t about Trump’s alleged “war” with the media he openly courted for decades. Reasonable people may disagree on whether a politician is succeeding or not, or whether his policies and priorities make sense. One person’s “obstruction” can be another’s “resistance.”
But facts aren’t up for grabs. Federal data on climate, unemployment, the Census, the economy, pollution and Zika rates don’t have “alternative facts” that are just as valid. They are provable baselines that a civil society must agree upon to function.
Lies about small things have a way of morphing into lies about big things. Kill faith in facts – and faith in a free press, which is, after all, the public’s eyes and ears – and institutions crumble. It is a testimony to how thoroughly Trump has alarmed the fact-based sectors of society that researchers here and worldwide have been working to privately back up and preserve government data they fear Trump may try to degrade or bury, such as climate science.
Asked whether he planned to be truthful with the public, and not knowingly spread false information, Spicer replied, “Our intention is never to lie to you.” Which is not precisely the same as promising not to lie.