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Opinion: The new Trump administration sounds more like the old Trump campaign

President Trump speaks at CIA headquarters in Langley, Va., on Saturday.
(Mandel Ngan / AFP/Getty Images)

The new Trump administration got off to a phenomenally bad start over the weekend, with the president delivering a bizarre speech before CIA employees in which he lied about the size of the crowd at his inauguration, claiming up to 1.5 million people were on the National Mall.

Then two top aides — counselor Kellyanne Conway and White House Press Secretary Sean Spicer — doubled down with even more inane or verifiably false statements. Conway, in what could well become a defining phrase of the administration, argued that Spicer, in testily defending Trump’s count Saturday, was simply using “alternative facts” — which “Meet the Press” host Chuck Todd immediately termed “falsehoods.”

Quite the spat, that. And it was an entirely self-inflicted controversy, which is what should be the biggest concern here. The new administration either engaged in a Machiavellian plan to create a parallel world of facts, or displayed significant incompetence coming out of the blocks. Neither is particularly reassuring.

To his credit, Spicer did a more professional job Monday during his first full press briefing, opening with a joke about Saturday’s blow-up then moving on to an overview of Trump’s actions to date, and promising to never knowingly lie to the White House press corps.

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But then Spicer got combative over viewership numbers for the inauguration, and made it clear the administration intends to be aggressive in dealing with media reports.

“We can disagree with the facts,” he said, then added later: “There are points at which we have a right to correct the record.”

An hour into the briefing, Spicer turned defensive when asked again why Trump raised the crowd issue during the CIA speech. He took on the tone of an aggrieved teenager begging to be better understood.

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“It’s not just about a crowd size,” Spicer said, then ticked off a list of media skepticism about Trump dating back to before he announced he would run. “There is this constant theme to undercut the enormous support that he has. [Polls say otherwise.] And I think it’s just unbelievably frustrating when you’re continually told it’s not big enough, it’s not good enough, you can’t win.”

That the size of the inauguration crowd became a significant issue, though, began with Trump himself. He set that agenda on his own. In addressing the CIA workers, Trump squandered an opportunity to lay out his vision of the spy agency’s role in eradicating Islamic State, a key campaign and inauguration speech promise. He also didn’t seek to mend fences after his initial refusal to accept the intelligence community’s conclusion that Russia hacked Democratic emails during the campaign, and comparing them with Nazis.

Trump did mention the importance of the CIA in fighting Islamic State, pledged his support for the agency workers (notably not mentioning its leadership), talked a bit more about the nation’s military defense, but otherwise focused on himself and lied — in front of a crowd of professional lie detectors — about the size of the inauguration turnout.

Then he sent Spicer out for his first press briefing to add fuel to the fire by scolding the media without taking any questions.

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He took on the tone of an aggrieved teenager begging to be better understood.

In defending that debacle, chief of staff Reince Priebus on Sunday accused the media of trying to “delegitimize” Trump’s presidency, extending one of the more bizarre themes of Trump’s campaign, and now administration. He repeated the lie that the media distorted the crowd size photos from the National Mall, and zeroed in on an error by a Time reporter about the removal of a Martin Luther King Jr. bust from the Oval Office. (The reporter had simply missed seeing it, and retracted soon after.)

Priebus sought to frame that as part of “an obsession by the media to delegitimize this president, and we are not going to sit around and let it happen. We’re going to fight back tooth and nail every day, and twice on Sunday. “

Remember, this whole brouhaha began with Trump’s focus on reporting about the size of his inauguration crowd, and devolved from there into bunker-defense by top communications staffers and his chief of staff. This is, at best, amateurish.

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Trump’s infamous thin skin exposes a petty core, and he has surrounded himself with communications advisors who are campaign attack dogs. And in their first White House engagements with the media, they responded as if they were still in the hurly-burly of an election. Which presumably is just what Trump wants them to do.

The nation has watched Trump for too long now to hope that he might have the maturity and common sense to effect a fast reboot and recognize that serving as president is a much different thing than running for president.

Or, for that matter, to recognize that the leader of the United States of America can only ride a lie so far.

Scott.Martelle@LATimes.com

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Follow my posts and re-tweets at @smartelle on Twitter


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