The gaslighting ways of Team Donald Trump came into sharp focus in October, when then-vice presidential candidate Mike Pence used a nationally televised debate to convince the United States public that his running mate actually hadn’t staked out all those horrible positions and hurled all those horrible insults. When opponent Sen. Tim Kaine (D-Va.) pointed to Trump’s record, Pence hit back, “I mean, to be honest with you, if Donald Trump had said all of the things that you’ve said he said in the way you said he said them, he still wouldn’t have a fraction of the insults that Hillary Clinton leveled when she said that half of our supporters were a ‘basket of deplorables.’”
In a press briefing Monday afternoon, White House press secretary Sean Spicer signaled that gaslighting remains an operative strategy of the new administration — and he even defined the term, in case there’s any confusion about the matter. It was a much-anticipated event, given its buildup. Saturday, Spicer gave a statement nearly six minutes long pounding the media for slights real and imagined. The real part was when a Time magazine reporter included a false allegation — which was followed by a correction and apology — about the removal of the Martin Luther King Jr. bust from the Oval Office. The imagined part was Spicer’s contention that the media falsely underreported turnout for Trump’s inauguration ceremony on Friday. In mounting that case, Spicer told numerous untruths about the crowd and other circumstances.
Trump also visited the CIA Saturday in an attempt to convince those assembled that his dispute with the intelligence community was a concoction of a biased media. “They sort of made it sound like I have a feud with the intelligence community,” said Trump, not bothering to mention that he himself had issued plenty of tweets directly attacking intelligence officials, including this classic that likens them to Nazi officials:
Intelligence agencies should never have allowed this fake news to "leak" into the public. One last shot at me.Are we living in Nazi Germany?
— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) January 11, 2017
That wasn’t all. Team Trump wasn’t pleased with the intelligence community’s conclusion that Russia had tried to tilt the election in his favor. So Trump’s transition team in December put out this statement: “These are the same people that said Saddam Hussein had weapons of mass destruction. The election ended a long time ago in one of the biggest Electoral College victories in history. It’s now time to move on and ‘Make America Great Again.’”
So did the media really gin up this impression of Trump being at odds with the U.S. intelligence agencies? Pressed on the matter, Spicer held forth:
What happened … is he kept hearing about this rift that existed. He talked about it a couple of weeks ago after his briefing — how proud he is and how much he respects the intelligence community. And I think when he walked into that and he saw it, he wanted to make sure that people knew that what you’re hearing on television or in reports about this rift: I have the utmost respect for you, I honor your service, I’m proud of what you’re doing and the sacrifices that you’re making. And I think that he wanted them to know that you see and hear all this stuff on TV about this rift that so-called exists. And clearly it doesn’t matter, like, don’t believe what you’re hearing. Know that I have a tremendous amount of respect for you, I appreciate everything that you’re doing. And I think that’s why he wanted to do it, is to make sure they understand, they heard firsthand how much he respects them, how much he wants to dispel the myth that there was a quote-unquote rift.
Don’t believe what you’re hearing, that is, even if the words are coming straight from us.
Nor was this the only moment of miraculous revision that Spicer managed to execute. At another point, he received a question about his assertion on Saturday that this was “the largest audience to ever witness an inauguration — period — both in person and around the globe.” There is little haze in that assertion, as it makes claims of two separate records: First, the audience that witnessed the inauguration in person, i.e., at the Mall and its environs, and second, the audience that witnessed it on video everywhere else.
That, anyway, is the common-sense interpretation of Spicer’s words.
It’s not his, however. “Are you retracting your claim on Saturday that this was the largest crowd in person for the inauguration?” came a question for Spicer. “That’s not what I said,” he responded. “I am saying that it was the total largest audience witnessed around the globe.” And: “I don’t know how you can interpret it differently.”
More gaslighting here. If Spicer had been so concerned with aggregate audience, why was he so hyped about media representations of attendance on the Mall itself? Why did he make false claims about Metro ridership and floor coverings? For example, he said, “Photographs of the inaugural proceedings were intentionally framed in a way, in one particular tweet, to minimize the enormous support that had gathered on the Mall. 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.”
A slogan for Team Trump: Believe us the second time.