The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Trump is mad the media isn’t covering the real story from Jan. 6: Crowd size

Trump supporters rally on the Ellipse in front of the White House on Jan. 6, 2021. (Julio Cortez/AP)
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There are times at which an observer in the media will offer a qualifier for the information he’s about to convey that is meant to emphasize its ridiculousness. He might, for example, introduce some tidbit with the preface that what follows is not satire, a reminder intended less as an actual warning but, instead, to goose the reader’s anticipation.

At other times, though, it’s useful to actually make clear that what is being relayed is, in fact, not satire. That what follows seems like something that might be made up to highlight an absurdity but, in this case, isn’t.

This, as you may have guessed, is one of those latter times. In an interview with the far-right cable channel One America News that was released on the anniversary of the Jan. 6, 2021, attack on the Capitol, former president Donald Trump spent four minutes complaining about the media’s failure to cover the size of the crowd at his speech shortly before the riot began.

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Before I get into the specifics of what he said, I’d like to add some additional context. You will recall that Trump’s presidency began with a nearly identical dispute over the size of the crowd at his inaugural speech. That fight set the tenor for much of his presidency. He pushed press secretary Sean Spicer to have an unscheduled news conference (at which Spicer didn’t take questions) to rebut accurate reporting about the number of people who attended the event. He complained about the coverage during a visit to the CIA, claiming without any basis in fact that more than a million people had showed up to hear him speak. The president who’d used crowd size as a proxy for his popularity on the campaign trail continued to do so once elected.

Sitting down with One America’s Christina Bobb, Trump again couldn’t resist raising this same line of complaint.

“Massive numbers. They don’t cover the numbers of people,” Trump said of the audience at the Ellipse speech that morning. “They always show the Capitol with a very small, just a tiny percentage of the people that were there. They never show helicopter pictures of that incredible crowd because it was the largest crowd I’ve ever spoken before. I’ve never had a crowd — I’ve never seen a crowd that big.”

Bobb concurred. Which, of course, she would. She was the channel’s primary reporter on its exhaustive coverage of the “audit” of the election results in Arizona’s Maricopa County, using her on-air time to repeatedly hype her personal fundraising effort that supported audit efforts. During the post-2020-election period, she also served as a legal adviser to Trump’s campaign.

“It was — the real number? I won’t say because it’ll be a headline: ‘Oh, he exaggerated the number.’ The real number was over that sacred number,” Trump continued. “You know what that number was, right? And I don’t even talk about that. And they don’t talk about it.”

Bobb said she knew what the “sacred number” was, which is impressive in its own right. I would assume that the number is “1 million,” which the crowd at his Ellipse speech very much was not. Even at Fox News, Trump’s allies were putting the figure somewhat below that.

What’s odd about that claim, though, is that he insisted this was “the biggest crowd I’ve ever — and I’ve spoken before the biggest crowds — the biggest crowd I’ve ever spoken by far. By numerous times, I think.” But, of course, he’d claimed that 1.5 million people were at his inaugural address, 150 percent of that sacred number. So it’s hard to take Trump’s claims at face value, certainly a novel position for us to find ourselves in.

Then, a masterstroke: Trump immediately compared the media’s response with the response to his inauguration.

“They should show helicopter shots of the crowd. Not taken six hours before, like they did with my inauguration,” he continued. “You know, when they show the inauguration hours before, right? And they talk about, oh, not that many people. Because I tell you what, it went down to the Washington Monument and they know it.”

So, in short order: the Ellipse speech crowd was a million people, the biggest crowd ever by some multiple of times, but the media is downplaying it as they did with his inaugural crowd — which, at the time, he said was probably 1.5 million people.

Trump had a theory for why this massive crowd was not being covered.

“Why don’t they show the real crowd that was there on Jan. 6?” Trump asked, about four minutes into his discussion of this important issue. “The crowd of people that was the biggest I’ve ever seen. I haven’t seen any — you can hardly get a picture. We’re trying to find pictures. They have censored the pictures. They don’t want to show that crowd because that shows what it was all about. They were there over a rigged election.”

The goal here is pretty obvious, as obvious as when he told Bobb that many attendees started walking to the Capitol before he even spoke. In the abstract, this would seem to undercut the idea that everyone was enthusiastic about his address, but he wants to distance himself from the violence that unfolded and any link between his rhetoric during that speech and what followed. So when he insists that all of those people showed up in Washington to support his effort, he’s trying to reframe the day’s events from the riot to the frustration over the election.

But, of course, those things are inseparable. The point is entirely that Trump brought thousands of people to Washington and convinced them that the election was stolen. Then some of those people broke into the Capitol to keep him in power while Trump watched on television from the White House. That Trump made everyone so furious and then encouraged them to show up is exactly the issue.

Well, then there’s the other reason Trump wants to talk about crowd size: He likes to present himself as popular without precedent. So his presidency is bookended by mirrored claims. He was far more popular on Day 1 than the press will tell you and he was far more popular on his last significant day in office as well.

As always, the story isn’t the crowd but why the crowd was important to Trump.