How a Fight Over Crowd Size Would Define Trump’s Approach to the Presidency — and the Truth

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January 13, 2020

Soon after Donald J. Trump was sworn in as the 45th president of the United States of America, he began coming across reports that troubled him.

They had to do with the size of the crowd at his inauguration — specifically, that it was smaller than the crowd at the inauguration of his predecessor, Barack Obama.

What happened next, a new FRONTLINE documentary series says, would be emblematic of the businessman-turned-reality-TV-star’s approach to the presidency, the press and the truth: Frustrated, he falsely insisted that his inauguration crowd had been the biggest ever, and instructed his communications staff to say so publicly.

And — on their very first full day in the White House — that’s what they did.  

“Only a fool would have gone out there kind of half-cocked the way that we did. And we were those fools,” Cliff Sims, then a White House communications aide, tells FRONTLINE in the above scene from America’s Great Divide: From Obama to Trump, a new series that traces key moments in how America’s polarized politics came to be.

As the documentary reports, Sims worked with then-White House Press Secretary Sean Spicer to draft a statement that Spicer would deliver at a now-infamous press briefing. He berated reporters for their inauguration coverage and put forward what Kellyanne Conway would later call “alternative facts.” Almost every fact about crowd size that his statement contained was wrong.

“We were so caught up in the moment. And Sean’s trying to impress the president. And I’m being told facts that end up not being true, which we didn’t vet properly,” Sims recalls.

Spicer’s remarks on Trump’s behalf that day set an alarming precedent, according to sources interviewed in the FRONTLINE documentary.

“When he goes out and says, ‘This is the biggest crowd size ever,’ what he’s saying in essence is, ‘What’s true is what the leader says is true,’” Steve Schmidt, a former GOP operative, tells FRONTLINE. “The obliteration of the line between truth and the lie is fundamental to grasp because it’s so elemental to the functioning of democracy. And the degradation of those institutions is a weakening of our system.”

Spicer said in an interview with FRONTLINE that he never lied on Trump’s behalf, but that “the job of the press secretary is to articulate what the principal wants articulated.”

Under fire, Trump doubled down, continuing to insist on the enormity of his Inauguration Day crowd. It was the sort of approach he’d go on to take throughout his presidency when confronted with facts that weren’t to his liking — and it has resonated with his base.

“The obvious impact is that it’s created a tremendously dangerous, unstable force in American life, where people don’t know what to believe,” author Matt Bai tells FRONTLINE in the above clip. “The president of the United States has contributed mightily to an environment where people believe what they want to believe, and that is going to have long-term repercussions.”  

For more on how the idea of truth itself became part of the country’s divide, watch FRONTLINE’s new series in full. From FRONTLINE filmmaker Michael Kirk, a veteran chronicler of U.S. politics who with his team has made nearly 20 documentaries on the Obama and Trump administrations, America’s Great Divide: From Obama to Trump traces the growth of a toxic political environment that has paralyzed Washington and dramatically deepened the gulf between Americans — and holds political leaders across two presidencies accountable for their role.

Stream America’s Great Divide: From Obama to Trump, Part One:

Stream America’s Great Divide: From Obama to Trump, Part Two:

America’s Great Divide: From Obama to Trump is streaming in full on this page, at at pbs.org and on the PBS Video App. The series premieres on PBS stations Mon., Jan. 13 and Tues, Jan. 14 at 9 p.m. E.S.T./8 p.m. C.S.T. (check local listings). As part of the FRONTLINE Transparency Project, you can also explore more than 20 extended interviews with sources from the making of the series who offer in-depth accounts of history unfolding.

This post has been updated.


Patrice Taddonio

Patrice Taddonio, Digital Writer & Audience Development Strategist, FRONTLINE

Twitter:

@ptaddonio

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