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Fact Checker

Spicer earns Four Pinocchios for false claims on inauguration crowd size

By Glenn Kessler

January 22, 2017 at 11:40 AM

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During a briefing, White House press secretary Sean Spicer accused members of the press on Saturday of “deliberately false” inaugural coverage. (Thomas Johnson/The Washington Post)

"This was the largest audience to ever witness an inauguration — period — both in person and around the globe."
—White House press secretary Sean Spicer, remarks to reporters, Jan. 21, 2017

"I looked out, the field was — it looked like a million, million and a half people."
—President Trump, remarks to the CIA, Jan. 21, 2017

The column has been updated

It's rather remarkable that the Trump White House has decided to make easily disproved claims about the size of the inauguration crowd Friday. On the face of it, there is no reason Trump should have expected bigger crowds than Barack Obama drew in 2009 and 2013.

The Washington area leans left. Trump earned only 4 percent of the vote in the District of Columbia. Among the areas served by the Washington Metro, Trump received 8 percent of the vote in Prince George's County, less than 15 percent of the vote in Montgomery County, less than 17 percent of the vote in Arlington County and less than 30 percent of the vote in Fairfax County.

Trump may believe he heads a new national movement, but that movement does not exist in the D.C. metropolitan area. Given the animosity of the election, it's fair to say that Hillary Clinton voters were not motivated to attend his inauguration. Further, the political leanings of the surrounding area help explain why the Women's March on Washington on Saturday drew a substantially larger crowd.

Nevertheless, let's examine how wrong these statements are.

The Facts

Spicer, in his tongue-lashing of reporters, offered little evidence to back up his claims — and what he did say was wrong. He did not respond to requests for additional information, either via Twitter or email.

"This was the first time in our nation's history that floor coverings have been used to protect the grass on the Mall. That had the effect of highlighting any areas where people were not standing, while in years past the grass eliminated this visual."

False. Floor coverings were first used in 2013. It's actually astonishing a White House press secretary would get such a basic fact wrong in a prepared statement from the podium. A simple Google search would have helped.

"We know that from the platform where the president was sworn in, to 4th Street, it holds about 250,000 people. From 4th Street to the media tent is about another 220,000. And from the media tent to the Washington Monument, another 250,000 people."

Spicer appears to imagine that simply because a space can hold this many people, this many people attended the inauguration. But there is ample evidence that the crowd on Friday did not extend to the Washington Monument.

Marcel Altenburg and Keith Still, crowd scientists at Manchester Metropolitan University in Britain, analyzed photographs and video taken of the Mall and its vicinity for the New York Times and concluded that about 160,000 people were in those areas in the hour before Trump's speech. By contrast, they said, at least 470,000 people were in those areas for the Women's March as of 2 p.m. on Saturday, the time of the march's peak density.

Crowd estimates, of course, are not definitive. Both Friday and Saturday were overcast, meaning no satellite images are available. Satellite images would certainly provide consistent perspective.

From Trump's perspective at the Capitol, the crowd must have looked massive. But other images, extending over the Mall to the Capitol, clearly show fewer people than at Obama's inaugurations. In 2009, an estimated 1.8 million people attended Obama's first inauguration. In 2013, the number attending Obama's second was estimated at 1 million, making that the third largest. About 1.2 million people are believed to have attended the swearing-in of Lyndon B. Johnson in 1965.

A combination photo showing, at left, the 2009 inauguration (Emily Barnes/Getty Images) and at right, the 2017 inauguration (Lucas Jackson/ Reuters)

"We know that 420,000 people used the D.C. Metro public transit yesterday, which actually compares to 317,000 that used it for President Obama's last inaugural."

This is also false. The actual numbers are 783,000 trips for Obama in 2013 — more than double Spicer's figure — and 571,000 for Trump in 2017. There were 1.1 million trips for Obama in 2009, the biggest day in Metro's history. The number for Trump is actually lower than the average weekday ridership of 639,000 trips.

Again, we must emphasize that Spicer provided these numbers as part of a prepared statement. There is simply no excuse for such a basic failure to do due diligence in double-checking facts.

What was the second biggest day in Metro's history? Jan. 21, 2017, for the Women's March.

"This was also the first time that fencing and magnetometers went as far back on the Mall, preventing hundreds of thousands of people from being able to access the Mall as quickly as they had in inaugurations past."

This also appears to be a false claim. The Secret Service denied the use of magnetometers to reporters.

In any case, our colleagues at PolitiFact said that a 2017 Congressional Research Service report noted the use of magnetometers in previous inaugurations.

Also, even if magnetometers were on the Mall, this does not explain the sparse crowds for the parade.

"This was the largest audience to ever witness an inauguration — period — both in person and around the globe."

This was Spicer's summing-up statement. As seen above, his previous claims leading up to this sentence were false, so it already lacks credibility. The "in person" claim is simply wrong.

But there is no explanation for why he believes the audience was the largest ever around the globe. We have not seen global data, but in terms of U.S. television viewers, Trump already falls short. According to the preliminary data from Nielsen for inauguration coverage, 30.6 million television viewers in the United States watched Trump's swearing-in, 19 percent below the audience of 37.8 million for Obama's 2009 inauguration.

The record-holder for an inauguration TV audience remains Ronald Reagan, who attracted 41.8 million viewers in 1981.

We will update this as more data comes in, including viewership via live streams.

Update, Jan. 23: At a news briefing, Spicer tried to claim that he was speaking about the largest audience worldwide, even though virtually all of his presentation on Jan. 21 was about in-person attendance. He claimed that "tens of million of people" watched the event online, though he provided no evidence that was the case. Streaming data is not apples to apples with TV viewership, as it could reflect how many times someone tried to connect. (Ten attempts does not equal ten people.)

Akamai Technologies, which delivers content to leading broadcast and newspaper customers, said Trump's swearing-in was largest single live news event that the company has delivered. At its peak, 12:04 p.m., that meant 4.6 million concurrent viewers, according to spokesman Chris Nicholson.

In 2009, Nicholson, Akamai estimated 3.8 million peak concurrent viewers for Obama's inauguration at its peak. Terabits per second traffic appears eight times higher in 2017 than in 2009, but that is mostly a reflection of higher-quality video, he said.

Given that Akamai provides online content for just about every major broadcaster and many newspapers, it's clear that Spicer's revised statement does not add up either. Combining the TV and online figures, though it's a bit of apples and oranges, still leaves Trump short of Obama's 2009 numbers (and Reagan's numbers as well).

The Pinocchio Test

This is an appalling performance by the new press secretary. He managed to make a series of false and misleading claims in service of a relatively minor issue. Presumably he was ordered to do this by Trump, who conjured up fantastic numbers in his own mind, but part of a flack's job is to tell the boss when lies are necessary — and when they are not.

Spicer earns Four Pinocchios, but seriously, we wish we could give five.

Four Pinocchios

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Glenn Kessler has reported on domestic and foreign policy for more than three decades. He would like your help in keeping an eye on public figures. Send him statements to fact check by emailing him, tweeting at him, or sending him a message on Facebook.

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