That was the direct message to the media from President Trump and his spokesman Saturday, using both CIA headquarters and the White House briefing room to underscore that there’s a new and combative sheriff in town.
They accused the press of “deliberately false” reporting and intentionally trying to undermine him by lowballing the crowd at his inauguration. Even to some politically conservative observers, it appeared very premeditated, very angry and evidence of the new leader’s very thin skin.
At CIA headquarters, Trump told a packed audience of employees that the press had cynically and unfairly underestimated the crowd at his inauguration.
“We caught them in a beauty,” he said amid chiding of the media that was pale compared to distinctly whiny ones later from his press secretary.
The presumed point in Trump going to the CIA on his first full day in office was to underscore his respect for the intelligence community amid his recent feuding with it over Russian hacking. Politically, it was probably a smart move.
But, amid praise for their labors, he wandered off unscripted onto on his treatment by the press during an address to more than 400 employees. He claimed any recent frictions between him and the intelligence community were media fabrications.
Unmentioned was how it was Trump himself who had tweeted that the intelligence agencies had leaked “fake news” about an unsubstantiated dossier about his relations with the Russians. It was Trump who’d pointed a finger at the “intel” community.
In seguing to a self-portrayal of victimization, he left scant doubt that the Trump administration will position the press as a de facto opposition party. Politically, this, too, is a gambit likely to endear him to his core supporters, whose esteem for the press is slim.
Still, the stark contrast between Trump’s words and his literal background — the stars denoting those CIA members who had died while in service to the agency — verged on the breathtaking given its undisguised vitriol, seeming pettiness and arguable lack of rhetorical discipline.
“Surreal. Just plain weird,” said Charles Krauthammer on Fox News.
His comment came during a Fox News post-mortem that had both the conservative columnist and host Bret Baier essentially doing double takes over Trump’s performance, not to mention the subsequent, late-afternoon monologue by new Press Secretary Sean Spicer.
If one had any doubt that Trump was furious with both crowd estimates and an apparently erroneous tweet by Time Magazine, they were further dispelled by Spicer’s first formal appearance in the briefing room.
A hastily announced appearance by a press secretary late on a Saturday afternoon would normally suggest a disclosure of some gravity.
Instead, Spicer went after the errant tweet and the crowd estimates. It was all about what he declared was “deliberately false” and “reckless” reporting in the first 24 hours of the presidency.
“Shameful and wrong,” he called it near the start of a five-minute event in which he declined to take a single question and came off as distinctly petty and whiny.
His first topic was a tweet claiming the Martin Luther King Jr. bust was removed from the Oval Office. A Time magazine reporter had tweeted out that claim but also then corrected it.
Further, Spicer alleged that photos of the inaugural crowd were deliberately misrepresented in another media tweet.
But he didn’t merely assert that security and other factors held down the Trump crowd on Friday. He claimed those who did show constituted the largest inauguration crowd ever, both in person and via media worldwide.
As David Catanese, a reporter for U.S. News & World Report, told Baier (without any argument), that notion, at least regarding the actual attendees, is “demonstrably false.”
There is simply no comparison between the crowd Friday and at least the crowd at President’s Obama’s 2009 inauguration.
Spicer also underscored that the CIA employees were ecstatic with Trump’s earlier appearance at their headquarters in Langley, Virginia. They gave him a five minute standing ovation at the end, Spicer said.
He then repeated an early Trump and Republican talking point that the minority Democrats were “stalling” the nomination of the CIA director, Rep. Mike Pompeo.
“That’s what you guys should be writing instead of sowing division about false tweets,” Spicer said. In fact, Pompeo could be voted on by the Senate as early as Monday. But Spicer’s target was ultimately not Democrats in Congress but the press seated before him.
“We’re going to hold the press accountable,” he said.
Taken together, it was a rather remarkable tag team performance by a new president and a top aide de camp. In particular, there was the focus by Trump on the crowd estimates as he was addressing his CIA audience.
“This is an obsession that is not terribly healthy,” said Krauthammer later on Fox during a discussion that mentioned Trump’s recent tweets about Arnold Schwarzenegger’s ratings as host of “The New Celebrity Apprentice.”
“Crowd size, ratings, poll numbers. It’s just not a good way to start off.”
As Baier essentially repeated, it was all a “signal that is going to be a different way the White House is going to deal with reporters.”