Sean Spicer defends inauguration claim: 'Sometimes we can disagree with facts'

Trump’s press secretary said he intends to be honest with the American people as he rehashed false statement on crowd size during first White House briefing

Donald Trump’s spokesman, Sean Spicer, was unapologetic on Monday for making false assertions about the size of the crowd at his inauguration, declaring: “Sometimes we can disagree with the facts.”

Spicer, 45, was catapulted to celebrity on Saturday when he berated the media for its coverage of the ceremony. The press secretary claimed it had the biggest audience in history despite evidence from photos, crowd experts, TV ratings and the Washington Metro network.

#SpicerFacts jokes flooded Twitter and were used with relish by public announcers at sports games across the US.

On Monday, in his first Q&A session at the White House, Spicer struck a softer tone but was far from repentant.

Asked if it was his intention to always tell the truth from the White House podium, the press secretary replied: “It is. 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.”

The highlights: Sean Spicer holds first Trump administration press briefing

He attempted to turn the tables on the media by pointing out errors in its own reporting and claiming that, through relentless negativity, it is trying to undermine the president. “You’re in the same boat. There are times when you guys tweet something out or write a story and publish a correction, but that doesn’t mean you were deliberately trying to deceive readers, does it?”

Apparently referring to his past comment that the White House will hold the media accountable, he described it as “a two-way street”.

Spicer was more amiable than when he delivered Saturday’s admonishment without taking questions, perhaps in an attempt to turn the page. But he was notably vague on policies ranging from healthcare to climate change, from a border wall to the Keystone and Dakota Access pipelines.

He also offered little detail on whether Trump and Theresa May would discuss the parameters of a post-Brexit trade deal when the British prime minister visits on Friday. “I’m sure that there will be a discussion of trade, the degree to which I don’t know yet,” he said. “He’s going to have a great conversation about the potential for greater trade with the UK.”

May will be the first foreign leader to visit since Trump moved into the White House. Spicer added: “We have always had that special relationship with Britain and that reflects in the prime minister’s first visit here. He’s had a great conversation with her and looks forward having her here. We can always be closer.”

But “alternative facts”, as Trump’s counselor Kellyanne Conway described them on Sunday, and a sense of grievance in the Trump team were a recurring theme at the briefing.

Spicer backed down on his use of Washington Metro passenger statistics to back his disputed claim about the size of the inauguration crowd.

white house press briefing
Members of the media raise their hands to ask questions during Sean Spicer’s first White House press briefing. Photograph: Alex Wong/Getty Images

“At the time, the information that I was provided by the inaugural committee came from an outside agency that we reported on,” he admitted. “And I think knowing what we know now, we can tell that WMATA [the transit authority]’s numbers are different, but we were trying to provide numbers that we had been provided. That wasn’t like we made them up out of thin air.”

But he stuck to his guns about the audience, insisting that he had always been referring to both those there in person and those watching via TV and the internet worldwide. “Sure, it was the most-watched inaugural … There were tens of millions of people that watched that online … It’s unquestionable.”

This included on phones, TVs, tablets, Facebook and YouTube, he argued. “I’d love to see any information that proves that otherwise … I don’t think there’s any question that it was the most-watched inauguration ever. I think I’m right in saying [Ronald] Reagan didn’t have YouTube.”

His original statement on Saturday did say “both in person and around the globe”, but before and after this clause he had focused on the crowd watching the inauguration in person.

Turning his fire on the media, Spicer criticised a mistaken media report that Trump had removed a bust of civil rights leader Martin Luther King from the Oval Office. “We have a tweet go out about Martin Luther King. Think about how racially charged that is … Where was the apology to the president of the United States?

“There’s a point at which we have a right to go out there and correct the record … We want to have an open and healthy dialogue with the press corps and the American people.”

Asked why he and Trump wanted to raise the issue of the crowd size in the first place, Spicer complained that Trump was not being given a fair crack: “The default narrative is always negative and it’s demoralising. I think when you sit here and you realise the sacrifices the guy made of leaving a very successful business because he really cares about this country, and despite your partisan differences, he cares about making this country better for everybody.”

Trump’s inaugural speech declared that he would put “America first” and argued that patriotism could heal the nation’s divisions. On Monday, paperwork was filed with the federal government declaring officially that the day of his inauguration, 20 January 2017, would officially be known as the “National Day of Patriotic Devotion”.

Spicer said Trump’s legislative priorities would be repealing Obamacare, immigration, tax reform and regulatory reform. Asked whether he would undo Obama’s decision to give work authorisation to undocumented immigrants brought to the US as children, the spokesman indicated it was not a priority.

Spicer was asked if Trump had spoken to any intelligence agencies about their reported investigations into his aides’ Russian connections and whether he would allow such investigations to continue.

“I don’t believe he has spoken to anyone specifically about that,” Spicer replied. “And I don’t know that – he has not given any indication that he’ll stop an investigation of any kind.”

Democrats quickly seized on what they saw as a half-hearted answer. Adrienne Watson, national press secretary of the Democratic National Committee, said: “It is distressing the White House refuses to commit to let the six intelligence and law enforcement agencies currently investigating the ties between Russia and President Trump’s team to finish their investigations without interference.

“Reportedly, career intelligence officials are already fearful their investigation will be shut down – a move that would only be fitting in a dictatorship like Russia, not in the United States of America.”

The McClatchy news agency has reported that the FBI and five other agencies have been collaborating for months on an investigation into the extent of Russian attempts to skew the election.

Spicer also contradicted reports by the Washington Post, Reuters and the Wall Street Journal that Trump’s national security adviser Michael Flynn had several phone calls with Russian ambassador Sergey Kislyak during the transition, at first claiming there had been one call, then correcting that to two.

“There’s been one call — I talked to General Flynn about this again last night — there’s been one call that talks about four subjects,” he said. “One was the loss of life that occurred in the plane crash that took their military choir. Two was Christmas and holiday greetings. Three was to talk about a conference in Syria on Isis. And four was to talk about after the inauguration setting up a call between President Putin and President Trump.

“I don’t believe that that has been set up yet, because the call was to say, ‘After…’ They did follow up, I’m sorry, two days ago, about how to facilitate that call. So there have been a total of two calls with the ambassador and General Flynn, and the second call came, I think it’s now three three days ago that was to say: once he gets into office, can we set up that call? It hasn’t, to my knowledge, occurred yet.”

Flynn’s communications with Russian officials are under investigation by US intelligence agencies, according to the Wall Street Journal. Spicer added: “During the transition I asked General Flynn whether or not there were any other conversations beyond the ambassador and he said no.”

Responding to a question about Russian claims of a joint air mission with the US in Syria, which the Pentagon has denied, Spicer said Trump would “work with any country that shares our interest in defeating Isis”, saying that applied to “Russia or anyone else”.

Spicer was also questioned about the president’s response to the millions of people who took part in women’s marches in Washington and other major cities. “I think he has a healthy respect for the first amendment,” he said. “This is what makes our country so beautiful. On one day you can inaugurate a president, on the next day people can occupy the same space to protest something.

“But he’s also cognisant to the fact that a lot of these people were to protest an issue of concern to them and not against anything.”

The briefing room in the West Wing was as crowded as for Barack Obama’s farewell press conference five days earlier.

Sitting at his right side were White House staff including Conway and the director of strategic communications, Hope Hicks. He began with a broad grin and an upbeat, “Good afternoon, everyone!” – apparently from the Conway playbook.

Meanwhile CNN reported that Trump has signed a letter resigning from positions in more than 400 business entities. It was dated 19 January, the day before he was sworn in as president.

Earlier this month Trump pledged to transfer his business holdings to a trust run by his sons, Donald Jr and Eric. Alan Garten, a lawyer for the Trump Organization, told CNN on Monday that the trust has been set up.

Spicer said Trump’s two adult sons, Donald Jr and Eric, are “fully in charge of the company”. But after consulting with Hicks he admitted no documents proving Trump had stepped away from his business interests had been made public “at this time”.


David Smith in Washington

The GuardianTramp

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