One by one, just hours after President Trump’s inauguration, some of his most senior aides made the short journey from their new West Wing offices to the press briefing room.
Press Secretary Sean Spicer stood for a moment behind the lectern where he will conduct news briefings. Stephen Bannon, chief strategist, took note of the cramped quarters many correspondents worked in. And Kellyanne Conway exchanged pleasantries with the reporters and photographers who will document the administration.
Within 48 hours, what had seemed to be a goodwill tour instead appeared to have been a reconnaissance mission, the new administration sizing up a prominent adversary.
“As you know, I have a running war with the media,” Trump later said to CIA employees.
The presidential campaign is over, but Trump aides stuck to their election-year tactics in their first weekend in the White House. Over and over, aides laid down markers that they would continue to unapologetically present their version of events and challenge any perceived slights.
On Sunday, the day many were formally installed to their positions as assistants to the president, Trump advisors defended the White House’s attacks on the media and its incorrect claims about the size of the crowd at the inauguration, accusing news organizations of trying to undermine the president’s legitimacy.
Challenged by “Meet The Press” host Chuck Todd about why Spicer had been dispatched a day earlier to deliver a statement with provably false crowd data, Conway made a startling characterization, that Spicer had offered "alternative facts."
“You're saying it's a falsehood. And Sean Spicer, our press secretary, gave alternative facts to that,” Conway told the NBC host, who immediately interjected with his disbelief over her description.
Conway eventually backed off Spicer's claims. “I don’t think you can prove those numbers one way or the another,” she said. “There's no way to really quantify crowds."
Police and cities do use statistical methods to estimate crowd sizes to protect public safety during large events. And scientists used available evidence to tally Friday’s attendance on the National Mall.
When news outlets presented comparisons of Trump’s inauguration crowds with ones for former President Obama’s inaugurals, whether by airing broadcast footage or publishing side-by-side photographs, Trump advisors saw, as Chief of Staff Reince Priebus characterized it, an “obsession by the media to delegitimize this president.
“And we are not going to sit around and let it happen," he told “Fox News Sunday.”
In his Saturday evening press statement, Spicer also accused reporters of seeking to sow division. Priebus and Conway made a supplemental argument Sunday: that by reporting on and fact-checking the grievances expressed by the president and his aides, journalists were overlooking more substantive matters.
Their point was undermined by Trump tweeting hours earlier about television ratings for his inaugural — “11 million more than the very good ratings from 4 years ago!” His emphasis on Obama’s second inaugural ignored that first inaugurations historically draw more viewers.
Every new White House experiments with different approaches for communicating its message. Obama, in an interview with former aides just before the end of his presidency, said that if he could offer advice to himself eight years earlier, it would be to “spend more time thinking about new ways of communicating with the American people.”
“You can’t be so intimidated by the way things have been done in the White House because the communications landscape is shifting,” he said on the “Pod Save America” podcast.
But Trump aides risked damaging the administration’s credibility with such public admonitions over provably false claims. That could impede their efforts to build support for Trump’s agenda beyond his most committed backers.
Indeed, Trump was dismissive of the massive public protests in Washington and around the world Saturday that grew out of opposition to his election.
“Was under the impression that we just had an election! Why didn't these people vote? Celebs hurt cause badly,” he tweeted.
He acknowledged in a follow-up message the marchers’ right to demonstrate, saying, “Peaceful protests are a hallmark of our democracy.”
Later Sunday, in his first appearance in the White House’s grand East Room as president, Trump turned to the more sober governing tasks ahead. He offered condolences to storm victims in the Southeast before highlighting conversations with foreign leaders.
British Prime Minister Theresa May is set to visit Friday, followed by a summit next week with Mexican President Enrique Peña Nieto to discuss, among other issues, the North American Free Trade Agreement. Trump campaigned extensively on renegotiating free-trade deals.
“Anybody ever hear of NAFTA?” he asked in jest. “I ran a campaign somewhat based on NAFTA.”
Trump also spoke of a “very nice” conversation with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu by phone, amid speculation that among his first foreign policy acts would be to move the U.S. Embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem, long a goal of many influential Jewish Republicans in the U.S. Both Israel and the Palestinians lay claim to Jerusalem.
Spicer said in a statement that the administration was “at the very beginning stages of even discussing this subject.” The White House later said that the two leaders discussed the threat posed by Iran, and that Trump emphasized that peace between Israel and the Palestinians could only be negotiated directly between the two sides — an affirmation of longstanding U.S. policy.
In the East Room, Trump also made note of a graceful letter from Obama that he had found waiting for him in the Oval Office.
Holding it up, he added: “We won't even tell the press what's in that letter."