“Why does this matter?” you ask. Good question. Put it to Sean Spicer, who felt the topic was important enough to call an impromptu press conference and berate the media over it late on a Saturday afternoon. I wonder what the occasion was the last time the White House held a presser late on a weekend day. Probably an invasion somewhere.
To be fair to Spicer, he’s a PR pro of longstanding and almost certainly wouldn’t have pulled that stunt if not ordered to by his boss. And now, having pulled it and been pounded for it by people on both sides, it sounds like the White House has misgivings:
Commentary about the size of his inauguration crowd made Mr. Trump increasingly angry on Friday, according to several people familiar with his thinking.
On Saturday, Mr. Trump told his advisers that he wanted to push back hard on “dishonest media” coverage — mostly referring to a Twitter post from a New York Times reporter showing side-by-side frames of Mr. Trump’s crowd and Mr. Obama’s in 2009. But most of Mr. Trump’s advisers urged him to focus on the responsibilities of his office during his first full day as president…
Mr. Spicer picked up the theme later in the day in the White House briefing room. But his appearance, according to the people familiar with Mr. Trump’s thinking, went too far, in the president’s opinion.
“What’s worrisome, writes Jonathan Last, “is that Spicer wouldn’t have blown his credibility with the national press on Day 2 of the administration unless [the issue] was vitally important to Trump.” Right, and that’s completely in character: The size of his crowds was always a point of pride for him during the campaign, evidence that he had galvanized a populist movement of unprecedented dimensions. Challenge him on that by throwing the size of Obama’s inaugural crowds in his face and he’s bound to lash out. There are a thousand better ways to spin Obama’s larger inaugural crowds — I offered a few here — but Spicer chose to resort to what Kellyanne Conway colorfully described this morning as, er, “alternative facts,” like claiming that there were more Metro rides in D.C. on Friday than there were for Inauguration Day 2013. Not true: There were 782,000 in 2013 compared with 571,000 on Friday. (Yesterday’s Women’s March in D.C. topped both with more than one million rides, the second highest number in history after Obama’s 2009 inauguration.) They were committed to challenging this charge about crowd size, so they kitchen-sinked it. If nothing else, Spicer proved his commitment to Trump yesterday.
All of which makes the media appearances in the last 24 hours by Tom Barrack, head of Trump’s inauguration committee, surprising. Barrack told Chuck Todd this morning and Anderson Cooper last night that the estimate of 1.5 million at the inauguration came from him. He never explicitly says that was wrong (although he does say “Thank goodness the Senate didn’t confirm me as the statistical warrior and analytical king of counting crowds”), but his point, as I take it, is that Team Trump’s crowd count was partially distorted by the vantage point of looking out from the Capitol towards the Lincoln Memorial, which makes the lawn appear completely packed even if it isn’t. The estimate of 1.5 million was accurate from that vantage point, but not when you saw the shots from overhead. He also told Cooper that many attendees were late getting onto the lawn because of a wider security perimeter and the strain on police from dealing with the riots happening elsewhere in the city, which meant that even the overhead shots taken before Trump spoke didn’t accurately capture how many people ended up being there. The takeaway from all this, though, is less about how the numbers were calculated or why Barrack was wrong than the mere fact that he felt obliged to face the media and take heat for the confusion. It looks like he’s been tasked, or possibly volunteered, to be a fall guy for Trump and Spicer in smoothing this over. If you’re looking for some Trump functionary to back down on crowd size, here you go. On to the next subject now. The lesson, I guess: Never trust a man named Barrack.
Kidding aside, he’s a darned good surrogate, much better than Spicer was yesterday. He’s calm, affable, perfectly disarming to Todd and Cooper. And his core point has merit: In the end, he says, Trump was bothered less by the idea of drawing fewer people than Obama than by the fact that the media seemed so eager to highlight the comparison, to try to diminish him over such a silly, irrelevant metric. I made the same point myself on Friday night. If you want to say that Trump invited extra attention to his crowd size because of all of his boasting about it during the campaign, okay, but the sheer volume of media preoccupation with the topic on Friday suggests something more to it. Clearly, on a day when they felt the left’s political power at low tide, they were looking for a way to cheer themselves up at Trump’s expense. It was cheap. And the self-defeating Spicer presser was stupid.