White House press secretary stands by inauguration claims

Sean Spicer adopts a softer tone with reporters at his first official press briefing

White House press secretary Sean Spicer holds the Trump administration’s first daily press briefing at the White House. Photograph: Chip Somodevilla/Getty

US president Donald Trump's White House press secretary Sean Spicer told reporters during his first official press briefing that "our intention is never to lie to you" but he refused to retract his disputed claim that the inauguration was the most watched ever "both in person and around the globe."

He stood by his claim that Mr Trump’s swearing-in at the US Capitol on Friday drew the largest audience of any inauguration saying that it was “unquestionable”.

Mr Spicer launched a blistering attack on the media on Saturday for understating the size of the inaugural crowd.

“Sure, it was the most watched inaugural,” he said but this time included the audience that watched on television and online, and did not directly refer to the actual numbers who attended the inauguration.


On Saturday he castigated the media’s “false reporting” on the inaugural numbers saying that it was “the largest audience ever to witness an inauguration, period, both in person and around the globe.”

Aerial photographs, television ratings and figures provided by Washington’s Metro transit operators showed that the crowd was considerably smaller than Barack Obama’s first inauguration in 2009.

Mr Spicer stepped back from his claim at the weekend that Metro figures showed record numbers at the inauguration, acknowledging that the figures provided by the inaugural committee were wrong.

“That wasn’t like we made them up from thin air,” he said.

The Trump administration had accused the media of misreporting the crowd figures in an attempt to de-legitimise his presidency and said that Mr Spicer on Saturday presented “alternative facts” to defend it.

Lengthy conference

During a lengthy press conference, Mr Trump’s press secretary adopted a softer tone, telling reporters that it was always his intention to tell the truth.

“I think sometimes we can disagree with the facts. There are certain things that we may not fully understand when we come out but our intention is never to lie to you,” he told an ABC News reporter.

Responding to a question from a journalist at CNN, a network that Mr Trump has clashed with, Mr Spicer took issue with some of the media’s constant negative tone of coverage about Mr Trump and their attempt to “undercut” his support.

“The narrative is always negative – and it’s demoralising,” he said.

Referring to Saturday’s mass protest at the Women’s March on Washington, Mr Spicer said that it was a “beautiful” demonstration of the country’s First Amendment right of free speech, but questioned the cohesiveness of participants saying that they were not all there to oppose the new Republican president.

“This is what makes our country so beautiful is that on day on you can inaugurate a president, on the next day people can occupy the same space to protest something,” he said.

“But he is also cognisant to the fact that a lot of these people were there to protest an issue of concern to them and not against anything.”

In a press conference that touched a range of topics, Mr Spicer said there had been "no decision" about moving the US embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem in a shift on Mr Trump's stance on the relocation.

The spokesman said they were in the “very early stages” of the decision making process.

The move would inflame tensions between Israel and Palestinian given the competing claims to the city.

Disputed islands

Asked whether the Trump administration would defend territories in international waters, including disputed islands that the Chinese government is building in the South China Sea, Mr Spicer said: "We are going to make sure we defend international territories," in strong remarks that will be noted in Beijing.

In response to reports that US investigators were scrutinising calls late last month between Mike Flynn, Mr Trump's national security adviser, and Russia's ambassador to the US as part of a counterintelligence investigation of Russian activities in the US, Mr Spicer said that there were two calls.

On one call, Mr Flynn offered condolences for the loss of life in a Russian military plane crash, spoke about Syria and Islamic State and about arranging a call between Mr Trump and Vladimir Putin.

The spokesman said that Mr Trump had not spoken with any officials investigating Russian interference in the US presidential election and has not indicated that he planned to stop the investigation.

Signalling a possible break from a tradition in the press briefing room under the new regime, Mr Spicer did not take questions from a wire news service first but instead went to the New York Post, the Christian Broadcast Network and Fox News for the first questions.

The administration said that the White House would create “Skype seats” in the briefing room to journalists who live beyond 50 miles outside Washington so as to open up briefings to a “diverse group”.

Simon Carswell

Simon Carswell

Simon Carswell is News Editor of The Irish Times