The Central Intelligence Agency is expert at estimating crowd sizes. When trying to figure out whether a protest in some foreign hotspot could turn into a revolution, the CIA uses satellite imagery to get a sense of how many people are protesting. So it was particularly brazen of Donald Trump, while addressing the agency for the first time as president, to lie about the size of Friday’s inauguration crowd.
“We had a massive field of people,” Trump told a crowd of about 400 CIA employees at the agency’s headquarters in Langley, Virginia, on Saturday. “You saw them. Packed. I get up this morning, I turn on one of the networks, and they show an empty field. I say, wait a minute, I made a speech. I looked out, the field was—it looked like a million, 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.” Crowd scientists estimate that there were around 160,000 people at Trump’s inauguration in the hour before his speech.
In a bizarre press briefing later on Saturday, Trump Press Secretary Sean Spicer ranted against the media and claimed, not just falsely but nonsensically, that Trump enjoyed “the largest audience to ever witness an inauguration, period—both in person and around the globe. These attempts to lessen the enthusiasm of the inauguration are shameful and wrong.” In fact, the record is still held by Barack Obama for his 2008 inauguration, which drew an estimated 1.8 million.
And on Sunday’s Meet the Press, when asked to explain why Spicer “uttered a falsehood,” senior adviser Kellyanne Conway told Chuck Todd, “Don’t be so overly dramatic about it, Chuck. You’re saying it’s a falsehood...Sean Spicer, our press secretary, gave alternative facts to that.”
Some observers have warned journalists against an “alarmist” response to Trump’s early actions, lest the media too quickly exhaust our capacity for outrage and cause readers, especially those inclined to give the new president a chance, to tune out. “The danger for the established press,” New York Times columnist Ross Douthat wrote in a column over the weekend, “is the same danger facing other institutions in our republic: That while believing themselves to be nobly resisting Trump, they end up imitating him. Such imitation will inspire reader loyalty and passion—up to a point. But beyond that point, it’s more likely to polarize than to persuade, which means it often does a demagogue’s work for him. Fellow journalists, don’t do it.”
That column appears to have been completed before the weekend’s events, though; it makes no mention of Trump’s speech or Spicer’s briefing, which ought to change the calculus on the merits of press alarmism. The new administration’s bewildering boasts and outright lies are what make it so frightening, as they’re early signs of what many of us in the media have warned about for months: authoritarianism.
The purpose of the Trump administration’s lies is not necessarily to deceive, but to separate the believers from the disbelievers—for the purpose of rewarding the former and punishing the latter. As chess champion Garry Kasparov, an expert in authoritarianism as an outspoken opponent of Russian President Vladimir Putin, tweeted on Saturday:
In an already hyper-partisan political landscape, the Trump administration can blatantly lie, knowing that his base trusts him more than the “dishonest media.” And that’s exactly what Trump did in his CIA speech, which was rife with deceptions and examples of a narcissistic will to reshape the truth. While telling a story about a Time magazine reporter who wrongly reported that Trump removed the Martin Luther King, Jr. bust from the Oval Office (a mistake that was quickly corrected, but which the Trump staff continues to harp on), the president went on a tangent about Time.
“I have been on their cover, like, 14 or 15 times,” he said. “I think we have the all-time record in the history of Time magazine. Like, if Tom Brady is on the cover, it’s one time, because he won the Super Bowl or something, right? I’ve been on it for 15 times this year. I don’t think that’s a record...that can ever be broken. Do you agree with that? What do you think?” (The all-time record is held by Richard Nixon, who appeared on 55 Time covers.)
Aside from these lies and factual mistakes, Trump’s speech was genuinely weird on a number of a counts. His intended purpose was to mend fences with the agency, with which he’s feuded over their conclusion that Russia interfered in the election to help him defeat Hillary Clinton. Yet he did very little to reassure CIA staff, only briefly acknowledging their sacrifice and service by alluding to a wall commemorating agents who died in line of duty.
Rather, Trump was in full campaign mode, attacking the media (“among the most dishonest human beings on Earth”) and praising himself (“they say, ‘is Donald Trump an intellectual?’ Trust me, I’m like a smart person”). He also indicated the U.S. might reinvade Iraq for imperial plunder. “The old expression, ‘to the victor belong the spoils’—you remember,” he said. “I always used to say, keep the oil...So we should have kept the oil. But okay. Maybe you’ll have another chance.” The entire event was orchestrated like a campaign stop, so much so that Trump even brought along around 40 supporters, who could be heard cheering and clapping during his applause lines.
Turning a speech at an intelligence agency into a political rally is a deep betrayal of political norms. But it is very much in keeping with Trump’s disturbing habit of claiming the armed wing of the state, including the military and law enforcement, as his political allies. He said early in the CIA speech that “the military gave us tremendous percentages of votes. We were unbelievably successful in the election with getting the vote of the military. And probably almost everybody in this room voted for me, but I will not ask you to raise your hands if you did.” At the end of his speech, Trump sounded like a pathetic suitor making his final pitch: “I just wanted to really say that I love you, I respect you. There’s nobody I respect more.”
While Trump’s antics might have impressed his fans watching from home, they seem to have done little to assuage worries in the agency. The New Yorker interviewed a variety of intelligence experts, including John MacGaffin, a high-ranking veteran of the agency. “What self-centered, irrational decision process got him to this travesty?” MacGaffin told the magazine. “Most importantly, how will that process serve us when the issues he must address are dangerous and incredibly complex? This is scary stuff!”
Trump’s self-centered decision process is authoritarianism, and it’s anything but irrational. He campaigned in an authoritarian style, with rallies where he riled up large crowds to jeer at the press and protesters. One of the defining tactics of his campaign was disinformation, coupled with accusations of the same against the media. That hasn’t changed now that Trump is president. The administration’s unified anti-press and anti-fact message over the weekend is part of a deliberate, long-term strategy that was hatched many months ago, and is only likely to intensify. The president will wage a rhetorical war against the media, with the intent of delegitimizing one of the few institutions that can hold him accountable, and he will wage it with his most effective weapon: Lies, damned lies, and false statistics.