On Monday, the first regular work day in the Oval Office, President Trump signed a lot of papers to get rid of some of his predecessors' executive orders. Among these were: (1) Withdrawing from the PPT (Pacific Partnership Trade) agreement; (2) An order that put a freeze on federal hiring. (3) An order to reinstate the so-called Mexico City policy -- a Reagen-era gag order that prohibits giving any U.S. funds to NGOs (non-government organizations) for international programs that offer or advise on family planning and reproductive health, if those organizations also offer abortions, even though U.S. funds do not fund the abortions.
A photograph of Trump signing this last order showed him sitting at his desk, surrounded by seven white men, and Huffington Post's headline was: "Room Full of Men Screws Women." In addition, Trump had a busy day of meetings that included one with a group of corporate CEOs and another with labor union leaders. So -- a mixed score on optics. Seeing both CEOs and labor leaders is good; a group of white men taking away women's rights . . . bad.
But the hot topic of the day Monday was a continuation of the controversy that boiled over on the Sunday news shows over Trump surrogates (Priebus, Conway, and Spicer) being confronted with the president's lying and their repeating his lies. Of course that was a staple of the campaign, but now that he is president, it seems the news media feels strongly that the president should tell the truth.
It's really over a petty disagreement -- about the size of the inauguration crowd -- but the principle is yuuge. Here's how Huffington Post's Amanda Terkel framed it:
"President Donald Trump’s administration has spent its first days in office aggressively attacking the media for what it calls attempts to “delegitimize” the country’s new leader. On Sunday, the hosts of the network public affairs shows hit right back and essentially called out the administration for lying.
"Both Trump and Press Secretary Sean Spicer insisted on Saturday that the crowd that watched the inauguration this year was the biggest ever. . . . 'This was the largest audience to ever witness an inauguration — period — both in person and around the globe,' Spicer said at his first press briefing."
Terkel points out that those statements are not true -- and there is photographic and other evidence to prove they're not. Nevertheless, surrogates Reince Priebus and Kellyanne Conway both had to answer for them on Sunday morning news shows. Their attempts to shift the narrative to the "dishonest media" didn't work with this newly aggressive news host approach.
Chuck Todd pressed Conway on why the president would send his new press secretary out as his first official duty "to utter a provable falsehood?" When continuing to attack the media for "being dishonest" did not make Todd back down, Conway then tried to say that Sean Spicer had simply given "alternative facts."
Todd wouldn't let that go. “Alternative facts are not facts, they’re falsehoods,” he said; and Conway quickly changed the subject to the Affordable Care Act. George Stephanopoulos took a similar tone, telling Conway that the media is going to be watching what the president says and what he does.
Chris Wallace on Fox News Sunday joined in, his guest being Chief of Staff Reince Priebus. Wallace told Priebus that Trump had made statements that were "flat wrong" and that there needed to be discussion about "the president's honesty."'
Wallace continued, saying that there's a legitimate debate about whether crowd size matters. But the important point, he said, was that the Trump administration, and the president himself lied about a matter that was easily verifiable. Wallace even made it personal, saying that he had been there on the mall and that he had seen the difference "with my own eyes." Priebus also tried to change the subject.
Not part of the media himself, but former CIA Director John Brennan on Sunday also blasted Mr. Trump for using the occasion of a visit to the CIA headquarters "for self-aggrandizement," when he had supposedly gone there to repair his contentious relationship with the agency. Trump had inexplicably deviated from his task of rebuilding trust with the agency into an attack on the media over what he calls dishonest reporting on him. Why he was saying this to the CIA leaders was not clear.
Then on Monday, Sean Spicer had to face the White House press corps for his regular briefing. It did not go well. After lying to them and taking no questions on Saturday, he was unapologetic on Monday, although his wording had become a little more vague -- insisting that "more people had watched" the inauguration than ever before, which gave him some wiggle room to claim that he was including the television audience. But that's also not true. Spicer stuck to this line: "I believe that we have to be honest with the American people, but I think sometimes we can disagree with the facts."
I don't know whether that was careless or calculated. Yes, you can disagree about the facts -- i.e., argue about what the facts are, when they are not verifiable; but when facts are clearly factual, as they were here, you cannot "argue with the facts."
This is not a good start. Trump's most urgent tasks should be building a relationship of mutual trust with our intelligence and security agencies -- and credibility with the American people. We don't have to like him or agree with him. But we do need to know that the president is working from a similar understanding of reality. He's not there yet -- and his surrogates just look foolish parroting his lies. If they lie about crowd sizes, what happens when they want us to believe the Russians are really our best friends? Or that Iran is cheating on the nuclear agreement?