It truly couldn’t matter less how many people attended the inauguration of the 45th president of the United States, except that President Trump assured the world that he might break the mold.
“We are going to have an unbelievable, perhaps record-setting, turnout for the inauguration,” Trump told the New York Times earlier this month. So when the inauguration rolled around, members of the media evaluated that claim — and Trump came up short. Attendance at the 2017 event visibly paled in comparison to Barack Obama’s first inauguration, eight years prior.
But not according to Trump. Speaking to an audience at the CIA on Saturday, he insisted that his crowds had been undercounted, that maybe 1.5 million people showed up to cheer him on. He sent out his press secretary Sean Spicer later that day to prove him right.
After walking through various metrics that he suggested bolstered Trump’s point (though without reiterating the 1.5 million figure), Spicer declared, “This was the largest audience to ever witness an inauguration — period — both in person and around the globe.”
There’s no evidence that’s true.
During a news conference on Monday, Spicer clarified that his assertion extended beyond just the in-person audience.
Even including TV watchers, Trump trailed several prior presidents. He falls into fifth place since 1969, behind Obama in 2009, Richard Nixon in 1973, Jimmy Carter in 1977 and the high-water mark of Ronald Reagan in 1981.
(The Times spoke with crowd estimation experts who pegged the number in attendance on Friday at one-third of Obama’s 2009 audience, or 600,000 people. Other attendance figures are from the Atlanta Journal-Constitution. Nielsen numbers reported by Variety.)
On top of television, Spicer added online streaming numbers in his news conference on Monday. He cited CNN’s number of streams, which the network pegged at 16.9 million. Add that to Trump’s Nielsen numbers, Spicer suggested — 30.6 million — and you’re already past Reagan and everyone in the pre-Internet era.
That 16.9 million number, though, was streaming starts, meaning that someone popped into the stream and then left it. The maximum number of concurrent viewers — a more comparable number to Nielsen metrics — was 2.3 million at the time Trump took the oath. That would put Trump still 6 million views behind Obama in 2009 and far behind Reagan.
Spicer’s argument also ignores that, eight years ago, CNN’s live-stream numbers for Obama were even bigger. As the Associated Press reported at the time, CNN had 21.3 million streams (presumably starts) in partnership with Facebook that year. The AP had 8 million and the White House 1.3 million. (Update: A reader points out different numbers from CNN in 2009: 27 million total for the day — but 1.3 million concurrent, a million fewer than Trump.)
There were certainly more places streaming the event on Friday than in years past, including on any number of media websites and on Twitter. One analysis of Twitter viewership found that the inauguration was less popular than other recent events, including election night.
It’s clear that Trump’s assertion that 1 million to 1.5 million people attended his inauguration is without merit. Spicer pointed out on Saturday that there are no official counts of attendance from the National Park Service, highlighting that any such estimates are necessarily murky.
Then Spicer tried to flip similar murkiness to his advantage, retrofitting Trump’s original claim about record-setting into being accurate on a different metric: total global viewership. He pointed to unrepresentative streaming numbers to bolster that case and took advantage of the lack of a unified measurement system for online video to make a prove-me-wrong argument. Numbers are too murky to know that Trump was wrong about how many showed up and they’re too murky to know that Trump didn’t set a new global/online record.
Excluding online streaming, Trump starts out 8.3 million views behind Obama in 2009. It seems hard to believe that Trump’s audience — which skews older than Obama’s did at that point — preferred to watch on Twitter than to watch on CNN.
There was one new audience that could possibly have helped shift the numbers. That analysis of Twitter’s stream found that viewership in Russia doubled compared to election night, and, apparently for the first time, it ran on Russian state TV. (It’s not clear, though, how many tuned in.)
Maybe Russia propelled Trump to an unexpected victory. The only problem for Spicer’s claim is that there’s no evidence that it did.