The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

On Day 2 of his presidency, Trump wages war with the media over the size of his inauguration crowd

Trump's full speech at CIA headquarters (Video: The Washington Post)

President Trump took advantage of a visit to the American intelligence community to insult the intelligence of the American people.

Speaking at CIA headquarters in Virginia on Saturday, Trump challenged media characterizations of the crowd size at his inauguration a day earlier. In doing so, he presented preposterous arguments about the actual attendance.

“We had a massive field of people, you saw that. Packed,” Trump said to the audience. “I get up this morning, I turn on one of the networks and they show ... an empty field. I said, wait a minute, I made a speech! I looked out, the field was ... it looked like a million, a million-and-a-half people. They showed a field where there were practically nobody standing there. And they said, 'Donald Trump did not draw well!' ”

Trump blamed the “almost raining” weather, saying that God kept it from raining during his speech. “It looked, honestly, it looked like a million-and-a-half people,” he continued. “Whatever it was it was, but it went all the way back to the Washington Monument. And I turned on — by mistake, I get this network, and it showed an empty field and it said we drew 250,000 people. Now that's not bad, but it's a lie. We had 250,000 literally around, you know, in the little bowl that we constructed. That was 250,000. The rest of the, you know, 20-block area all the way back to the Washington Monument was packed.”

“So, we caught them,” he said, apparently referring to the media. “And we caught them in a beauty and I think they're going to pay a big price.”

This is simply nonsense.

It is very hard to judge crowd size from within a crowd, as we pointed out on Friday. Looking out over a sea of people makes it hard to gauge where there are gaps in the audience; Trump's vantage point during the inauguration was one of the worst possible places from which to make such a determination. Aerial photos show very clearly that there huge empty areas in the crowd moving back from the Capitol Building.

Here's a comparison that The Washington Post's graphics team made with the 2009 inauguration.

Those white areas are the “empty fields” Trump likely says the network showed. And they showed those empty areas because they existed. Our Ben Terris was a bit to the east of the Washington Monument about an hour before the speech began. You can see that, from his vantage point, there was a gigantic swath of empty space. An empty field, if you will.

Trump, speaking from the barely visible Capitol, would not have been able to see the empty white space as readily. To him, it may well have looked like the crowd stretched all the way back.

The inaugural committee did print nearly 250,000 tickets to attend the event, covering the areas in color on the map at right. It's not clear if all of those tickets were used or if they corresponded one-to-one to seating, since the numbered regions on that map were filled with chairs, limiting capacity. Notice, too, that the colored regions include areas that stretch back past the reflecting pool.

The 250,000-person estimate to which Trump referred probably comes from Dan Gross, who helped coordinate crowds for former president Barack Obama's 2012 inauguration. He tweeted the figure on Friday.

Kenneth Still, an expert in crowd sizes, told the New York Times that he estimated the turnout at about a third of the count for Obama in 2009. (The Times also has clear comparisons of the crowds that year with those on Friday.) The total audience eight years ago was estimated at 1.8 million — putting Trump's number somewhere closer to 600,000.

A critical lesson in this is that crowd estimates are tricky and that our sense of the scale of big numbers is iffy. If Trump made up the number 1.5 million — and it seems likely that he did, given that he wavered between 1 million and 50 percent more as he was talking — he added a huge number of additional people. A noticeably huge number. Compare the visual difference between 250,000, 600,000 and 1.5 million.

Trump's new press secretary, Sean Spicer, spoke briefly to the press several hours after Trump addressed the CIA.

"Photographs of the inaugural proceeding were intentionally framed in a way, in one particular tweet," he said, "to minimize the enormous support that had gathered on the national Mall." He's apparently referring to this tweet from the New York Times' Binyamin Appelbaum, which was retweeted more than 50,000 times.

The use of white "floor coverings," Spicer said, unfairly highlighted areas where people were not standing, as in the comparison photographs at the top of this article. (He claimed this was a first; it was not.) His implication is that the crowd looked more sparse as a result. (You may be the judge of that.) Further, he noted that security measures extended further down the Mall than in years past, meaning that "hundreds of thousands" of people were unable to get into the Mall as quickly. The Secret Service denied one of Spicer's security claims to CNN.

Fact-checking the White House's inauguration claims. (Video: Thomas Johnson/The Washington Post)

Spicer claimed that 420,000 people used public transit in Washington on the day of the inauguration, surpassing the 317,000 that used it for the 2013 event. It's not clear where that number comes from. The Washington Metropolitan Area Transit Authority compared ridership by 11 a.m. from the past four inaugurations on Friday; Trump's was the lowest.

(Ridership for those attending Saturday's anti-Trump rallies, incidentally, was 42 percent higher than by 11 a.m. on Friday.) Over the course of the day, our Luz Lazo reports, there were nearly 571,000 trips taken on Jan. 20 — versus 1.1 million in 2009 and 782,000 in 2013.

Noting that there are no official estimates of crowd size, Spicer also walked through the capacities of various parts of the Mall, totaling 720,000 people. That included space from Fourth Street NW to the "media tent" — the area where Terris was filmed — and from the media tent to the Washington Monument, both of which he said were "full when the president took the oath of office." (You may be the judge of that, too.) Even if those areas were full, this is still less than half of the figure that Trump presented to the CIA. Spicer noted that more people watched the inauguration online and on television, which is true — but also isn't the claim that his boss was making.

Complaints about the media misrepresenting his audience size are not new for Trump. During the campaign he routinely inflated attendance at his rallies. In one notorious incident that parallels Saturday's complaints neatly, he got angry at CNN for saying that he spoke to a half-empty room, insisting that the crowd had rushed forward to hear him speak. That also wasn't true; the room was demonstrably only half-full.

At that point, though, Trump was just a regular old candidate for office. On Saturday, he was the newly inaugurated president of the United States.