White House spokesman Sean Spicer defends integrity after false claims about inauguration crowd size

Newly minted White House press secretary Sean Spicer had a tense exchange Monday in his first official briefing about whether he intends to be truthful in his job.

“Will you pledge never to knowingly say something that is not factual?” ABC News’ Jon Karl asked.

Spicer insisted he would never deliberately tell a lie in his capacity as White House press secretary.

“It’s an honor to do this and, yes, I believe that we have to be honest with the American people. I think, sometimes, we can disagree with the facts, there are certain things that we may … not fully understand when we come out, but our intention is never to lie to you,” said Spicer.

The question about whether Spicer vowed to be honest with the press corps came after he faced widespread criticism on Saturday for making false claims about the size of the crowd that watched President Trump’s inauguration the day before.

Spicer convened reporters in the White House briefing room Saturday and delivered an angry statement attacking evidence that the number of people who watched Trump’s swearing-in was smaller than crowds at prior inaugurations.

White House spokesman Sean Spicer holds a press briefing at the White House. (Photo: Kevin Lamarque/Reuters)
White House spokesman Sean Spicer during his press conference Monday. (Photo: Kevin Lamarque/Reuters)

“That was the largest audience to witness an inauguration, period,” Spicer said.

In his statement, Spicer 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 National Mall.” To bolster his argument, Spicer falsely claimed that this was the first year in which white coverings were placed on the ground during the ceremony. He also cited ridership numbers for Washington Metro public transit that were incorrect. In a television appearance on Sunday, Kellyanne Conway, who is counselor to the president, said Spicer offered “alternative facts” rather than falsehoods. Both Spicer and Conway’s comments were widely ridiculed.

White House press secretary Sean Spicer. (Photo: Alex Wong/Getty Images)
Sean Spicer on Saturday. (Photo: Alex Wong/Getty Images)

Trump’s presidential campaign had a distinctly adversarial relationship with the media and regularly accused the press corps of bias and spreading untruths. On Monday, Spicer went on to argue that he and the media are “in the same boat” and both sometimes need to correct the record.

“I mean there are times when you guys tweet something out or write a story and you pub a correction, that doesn’t mean that you were intentionally trying to deceive readers and the American people does it?” Spicer asked. “I think we should be afforded the same opportunity. There are times when we believe something to be true, or we get something from an agency, or we act in haste because the information available wasn’t complete, but our desire is to communicate with the American people and make sure that you have the most complete story at the time.”

Spicer promised that he and his team will “do our best every time we can.”

“I’m going to come out here and tell you the facts as I know them and, if we make a mistake, I’ll do our best to correct it,” Spicer said, adding, “As I mentioned the other day, it is a two-way street. There are many mistakes that the media makes all the time. They misreport something, they don’t report something, they get a fact wrong. I don’t think that’s always … to turn around and say, ‘OK, you are intentionally lying.’ I think we all go try to do our best job and do it with a degree of integrity.”

Karl followed up by directly asking Spicer about the false claims he made on Saturday.

“Do you have any corrections you would like to make or clarifications of what you said on Saturday?” Karl asked.

“Sure. I mean, well, ask away, Jonathan,” Spicer said.

“I don’t want to … relitigate the whole issue, but just take one … the issue of Metro ridership,” Karl said. “You made a statement about Metro ridership.”

Spicer said his comments about public transit were based on figures from an unnamed “outside agency.” He admitted the numbers from the Washington Metropolitan Area Transit Authority contradicted his statements.

“I think, knowing what we know now, we can tell that WMATA’s numbers are different,” Spicer said. “But we were trying to provide numbers that we had been provided. That wasn’t like we made them up out of thin air.”

Karl then asked Spicer if he stood by his claim that it was “the most watched inaugural address in history.” Spicer insisted it was and argued he was including television and digital viewership, rather than only the live audience when he made that remark.

“Sure it was the most watched inaugural. When you look at … just one network alone got 16.9 million people online … there were tens of millions of people that watched it online. Never mind the audience that was here, 31 million people watched it on television,” said Spicer. “Combine that with the tens of millions of people that watched it online, on a device, it’s unquestionable. … I’d love to see any information that proves that otherwise.”

Spicer then questioned Karl on whether he challenged that analysis.

“Do you dispute that?” Spicer asked.

“I don’t want to get into numbers,” Karl answered.

“Well I do,” Spicer said. “I’m just saying, if you’re asking me a question about my integrity, I have a right to say, if you add up the network streaming numbers Facebook, YouTube, all of the various livestreamings that we have information on so far, I don’t think there’s any question … that it was the largest watched inauguration ever.”

President Donald Trump, right, smiles with his son Barron as they view the 58th Presidential Inauguration parade for President Donald Trump in Washington. Friday, Jan. 20, 2017 (Photo: Pablo Martinez Monsivais)
President Trump and his son Barron view the inaugural parade on Friday. (Photo: Pablo Martinez Monsivais)

Karl then questioned whether Spicer was really suggesting the inauguration was more widely viewed than President Ronald Reagan’s in 1981, which had the highest television ratings in history.

“I’m pretty sure that Reagan didn’t have YouTube, Facebook or the Internet,” Spicer said.

Karl pressed on and asked whether Spicer had any “second thoughts” about the “approach” he took on Saturday.

“I came out to read a statement, and I did it. We’re here today. I’m going to stay here as long as you want,” Spicer said with a smile, prompting laughs from the briefing room.

“I think you guys might want to leave before I do,” Spicer quipped, adding, “But look … I want to make sure that we have a healthy relationship.”

Spicer concluded by pointing to a tweet sent out by a Time reporter that said Trump had removed a bust of Martin Luther King Jr. from the Oval Office. The bust is apparently still in the presidential workspace. The reporter, who was on a pool duty shift at the time, apologized.

“There are points at which we have a right to make sure that we correct the record,” Spicer said. “I mean you’re talking about integrity, and you’re talking about telling the truth and facts.”

The New York Times reported that Trump felt Spicer’s appearance on Saturday “went too far,” according to the paper’s sources. Yahoo News texted a high level White House official on Monday to ask the person how Trump reacted to Spicer’s handling of Karl’s question’s and overall performance in Monday’s briefing.

“He was very pleased,” the official said of the president.

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