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Debunking Bullshit: Trump's 2017 Inauguration Crowd Size Claims

Technology can be a great thing, unless you are trying to hide something.

The Trump administration has claimed, with absurd certainty and in conflict with widespread reports to the contrary, that the 2017 Presidential Inauguration was, as White House press secretary Sean Spicer angrily put it, “the largest audience to ever witness an inauguration, period.” Thankfully, none of us needs to be misled, willingly or otherwise. Some pretty simple technology allows everyone to get a sense of how many people attended the inauguration. If you have the curiosity and small amount of drive to chase down the facts, you certainly can do that for yourself and see how the Trump administration is wrong (I’ll speculate why this issue seems so important to them at the end of this post).

Let’s start with the Washington Metro system ridership numbers, which come from mechanical turnstiles with electronic counters. The Washington Metro Area Transit Authority (WMATA) put out the data from the Metro system (DC’s subway) for the last four inaugurations as of 11:00 am on each of those days:

  • 2017 (Trump): 193,000 trips
  • 2013 (Obama): 317,000 trips
  • 2009 (Obama): 513,000 trips
  • 2005 (Bush): 197,000 trips

On Saturday, Spicer made the case to reporters from a quickly arranged briefing, took no questions, and then walked out. I watched it on TV. It was bizarre. Among the specifics Spicer cited was the following false claim, (possibly) comparing the 2017 daily ridership number with the 2013 11:00 am number:

We know that 420,000 people used D.C. Metro public transit yesterday, which compares to 317,000 that used it for President Obama’s last inaugural…

Spicer either got mixed up, or he was deliberately misleading us. The 11:00 am number of 193,000 trips for this inauguration was 60% of the similar 2013 inauguration figure, and only 37% of the 2009 figure. That’s one indication of the crowd size.

In addition to the real Metro ridership figures, there are photos and videos posted, from the many cameras in people’s pockets and in locations around the city. Look at the photos from Obama’s first inauguration in 2009 and this year’s:

The analysis by Keith Still, a professor at Manchester Metropolitan University in England, estimates that the crowd on the National Mall on Friday was about one-third the size of Mr. Obama’s. Professor Still was a crowd safety consultant for the 2011 royal wedding of Prince William and Kate Middleton, and has advised the Saudi government on crowds for the hajj, the annual pilgrimage to Mecca.

PBS has a great time-lapse video of the inauguration crowd on the Mall, starting at sunrise, which shows the Mall was not at capacity at any time before or during the ceremony.

Katy Tur from NBC posted a video, which shows empty stands along the parade route.

Some analysis from The Atlantic:

Steve Doig, a professor of journalism at Arizona State University, has provided estimates of crowds at past inaugurals, and is well-versed in the challenges they present. “There’s no turnstiles; you didn’t have to buy tickets … so the standard metrics for measuring a contained crowd are not available,” he said. “The fallback is overhead imagery.” That allows experts to estimate the density of the crowd, and divide it by the area it covers, to produce “a reality-based estimate of the crowd.” Based on the photographs available in the media showing the part of the crowd that was on the mall, he said, “the claim that this is the largest ever is ludicrous on its face.”

And from Fox News:

THE FACTS: Trump is wrong. Photos of the National Mall from his inauguration make clear that the crowd did not extend to the Washington Monument. Large swaths of empty space are visible on the Mall.

Thin crowds and partially empty bleachers also dotted the inaugural parade route. Hotels across the District of Columbia reported vacancies, a rarity for an event as large as a presidential inauguration.

And ridership on the Washington’s Metro system didn’t match that of recent inaugurations. As of 11 a.m. that day, there were 193,000 trips taken, according to the transit service’s Twitter account. At the same hour eight years ago, there had been 513,000 trips. Four years later, there were 317,000 for Obama’s second inauguration.

All the evidence shows that this inauguration was not as well attended as either of the previous two inaugurations. But leaving aside the actual WMATA numbers and photos used to get crowd size estimates – which are important, because they are the only data-based indications we have – the more pertinent issue seems to be how crucial the Trump team believes it is to push back on the facts about his apparent popularity. Of course, Trump was the impetus for this, taking time before Spicer’s briefing on Saturday in his remarks at the CIA Memorial Wall to criticize the reported crowd estimates as false.

After the comments from Trump and Spicer, the administration’s assault continued Sunday morning with Kellyanne Conway on NBC’s Meet the Press, in which she described Spicer’s comments as “alternative facts”, which sounds like a derogatory term but apparently is not:

Asked on “Meet the Press” why Spicer used his first appearance before the press to dispute a minimal issue like the inauguration crowd size, and why he used falsehoods to do so, Conway pushed back. “You’re saying it’s a falsehood and Sean Spicer, our press secretary, gave alternative facts to that,” she told NBC’s Chuck Todd.

She claimed – correctly – that one cannot prove the crowd size number, though that ignores how experts actually can make good estimates about it. Then, she intimated what the Trump administration might do when the press calls him out in ways Trump may not like:

Conway also suggested that Todd’s insistence on asking why Spicer delivered a demonstrably false statement could affect the White House’s treatment of the media. “If we’re going to keep referring to the press secretary in those types of terms I think we’re going to have to rethink our relationship here,” she said.

Chris Wallace at Fox News even got into it with White House chief of staff Reince Priebus:

“I think this is a ridiculous conversation,” Wallace shot back. “There were huge areas, he [Trump] said there were crowds all the way to the Washington Monument.”

“There was,” Priebus insisted.

“There wasn’t,” Wallace shot back. “You know what? Let’s put up the picture again.”

At best, the pushback by the Trump team to discount inauguration crowd size reports and disparage the press comes off as impetuous. It’s not statesmanship. It reflects quite a bit of insecurity. It’s petty. And it’s easy to fact-check and show that they are lying. Even Fox News did that. None of this inspires confidence.

At worst, what Trump is doing is an attempt to convince the public that his propagandist narrative of events is typically true, and that the press is typically lying.

Let’s consider the best case of all this first, that Trump’s pushback against the press this weekend shows the amateur political tactics of his rookie team. If they hadn’t disputed the crowd size story, we probably would not have seen the press go to even greater lengths to follow-up and analyze the crowd size in more depth, and keep reporting it. Personally, I was not even thinking about the crowd size much even after the initial estimates were reported – I just did not really care about it. The story would likely have faded quickly on its own. Since the Trump team now has more ability than anyone in the world to generate headlines, they could have unleashed some other news items and effectively replaced this story with coverage of other things. Instead, they chose to prolong this. Some might say that was intentional and shrewd (see below), since it fires up his base. While that might be a benefit, the cost is some serious negative coverage that is firing up everyone else as well, and during a time when Trump’s approval ratings as he enters office are near all-time lows for incoming presidents (that is another Fox News link for those of you who think anything else would be “fake news,” and it confirms the other major polls). It just does not seem smart. And if they fumble simple things like this, how are they going to handle truly tough political problems, like dealing with other countries on issues such as international trade, terrorism, and military aggression?

But maybe Trump’s tactics are in fact intentional rather than a blunder, an effort to energize his supporters. Trump’s reliance on populism may compel him to demonstrate how much support he appears to have. If this is what is behind the crowd size dust-up with the press, then not only will this continue, it could be the start of something much more disturbing, something I will get to in a follow-up blog post.

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