Trump's inauguration crowd: Sean Spicer's claims versus the evidence

White House press secretary’s angry declaration that the media faked low attendance does not stack up against photos, videos and public transport figures

Photographs of the National Mall in Washington DC and public transport figures for the city flatly contradict Sean Spicer’s angry insistence that Donald Trump drew “the largest audience ever to witness an inauguration, period, both in person and around the globe”.

In his blistering debut as White House press secretary on Saturday, Spicer accused journalists of reporting inaccurate crowd numbers and using misrepresentative photographs “to minimise the enormous support” that he claimed the new president enjoyed at his swearing-in.

Trump press secretary Sean Spicer slams ‘dishonest’ media for inaugural coverage

“No one had numbers because the National Park Service, which controls the National Mall, does not put any out,” he said, before going ahead anyway to declare that Trump had attracted “the largest audience ever to witness an inauguration” in person and in the world.

“These attempts to lessen the enthusiasm for the inauguration are shameful and wrong.”

Crowd estimates can be fraught with difficulty and there is indeed no official figure. But images of the National Mall on Friday contradicted Spicer’s assertions – particularly when compared with pictures from Barack Obama’s inauguration in 2009 and the turnout for the Women’s March on Saturday.

A timelapse video produced by PBS indicates that the National Mall was never full at any stage on Friday:

Meanwhile, photographs show the National Mall packed with crowds just before Obama’s inauguration in 2009 – but much more sparsely covered with people just before Trump’s ceremony.

Interactive slider showing Obama’s inauguration crowd with Trump’s. By: David Constable for the Guardian
Use the slider above to compare Obama’s inauguration crowd with Trump’s

The New York Times estimated that Trump had drawn a crowd of about one-third the size of Obama’s, which was thought to be a record turnout of 1.8 million.

Crowds on the National Mall just before Donald Trump’s inauguration in 2017 (left) and Barack Obama’s in 2009.
Crowds on the National Mall just before Donald Trump’s inauguration in 2017 (left) and Barack Obama’s in 2009. Photograph: Reuters

According to figures shared by the Metro Washington subway system on Twitter, 193,000 trips had been taken by 11am on Donald Trump’s inauguration day, compared with 513,000 during the same period on 20 January 2009 when Barack Obama took office.

“Ridership” as of 11am on Saturday stood at 275,000: more than eight times a normal Saturday and “even busier than most weekdays”, the Metro tweeted.

Metro Ridership: As of 11am, 193k trips taken so far today. (11am 1/20/13 = 317k, 11am 1/20/09 = 513k, 11am 1/20/05 = 197k) #wmata

— Metro (@wmata) January 20, 2017

Spicer attempted to bolster his argument by giving whole-day ridership figures for the Metro of 420,000 on Trump’s inaugural day. However, for comparison he used a figure of 317,000 which was the ridership figure only up to 11am on the inaugural day of 2013 – when Barack Obama had already been in office four years and attendance was, perhaps unsurprisingly, lower than for his first inauguration.

Before the inauguration itself, a video posted to Twitter by NBC’s Katy Tur showed “entire stands empty” along the parade route.

Parade route from Capital to WH. Entire stands empty. Crowd thin.

— Katy Tur (@KatyTurNBC) January 20, 2017

Photos of the vice-president, Mike Pence, making the trip from the Capitol to the White House also suggested sparse crowds.

when camera angles matter

— shauna (@goldengateblond) January 21, 2017

It is worth noting that Trump drew just 4.1% of the vote in Washington DC and lost the surrounding states of Maryland and Virginia.

His inauguration also occurred on a Friday – a fact that does not go any way towards mitigating the comparisons with Obama’s 2009 inauguration, which fell on a Tuesday, but does contextualise the strong turnout for the Women’s March on Saturday.

CNN tweeted a photograph of the National Mall taken from the National Park Service’s EarthCam on the Washington Monument when the swearing-in began, just after noon ET on Friday. Compared with the same view at the same time on Saturday during the Women’s March, there is a clear difference in crowds.

Photos taken at 12:15 p.m. ET each day show Trump's inauguration crowd vs. the #WomensMarch

— CNN (@CNN) January 21, 2017

The Associated Press reported that at least 500,000 women had turned out for the Women’s March on National Mall at 9.40am – more than double the initial predictions. There were also sizeable protests against Trump in other cities around the world.

Oh wow.

— Judd Legum (@JuddLegum) January 21, 2017

It is uncertain if there are more concrete figures to come: according to the Associated Press, the National Park Service stopped releasing official estimates for events at the National Mall following a dispute over the Million Man March in 1995.

The US Armed Forces Joint Task Force-National Capital Region and the Joint Congressional Committee, which organise inaugural proceedings, would not be releasing estimates either.

Politifact reported that crowds at inaugurations varied widely, with Obama raising an estimated 1 million in 2013, down from 1.8 million in 2009; George W Bush drawing 400,000 in 2005 after 300,000 in 2001; and Bill Clinton 800,000 in 1993 then 250,000 in 1997.

President Trump criticizes media over inauguration coverage

Before Spicer’s briefing room tirade on Saturday, Trump had told an audience at CIA headquarters that he had given his inauguration address to a “massive field of people … packed”, he estimated, with between 1 million and 1.5 million people.

To his eye, Trump said, the crowd stretched “the 20-block area, all the way back to the Washington Monument” – but a television network he didn’t name had broadcast a shot of “an empty field” and put the crowd at 250,000.

He went on to say that God had stopped rain from falling during his speech, before adding that he had “caught” the news network in a lie: “We caught them in a beauty.

“And I think they’re going to pay a big price.”

But the evidence certainly seems to challenge Trump’s assertion that he had drawn a crowd of as many as 1.5 million people.


Elle Hunt

The GuardianTramp

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