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Analysis: Trump's 'Alternative Facts' Fight Carries Campaign Bluster into White House

The false claims about Trump's inauguration cut to the heart of concerns about the new administration from the campaign.
Image: A Picture and Its Story: Crowd controversy: The making of an Inauguration Day photo
A combination of photos taken at the National Mall shows the crowds attending the inauguration ceremonies to swear in U.S. President Donald Trump at 12:01pm (L) on Jan. 20, 2017 and President Barack Obama at 1:27pm in Washington, on Jan. 20, 2009.REUTERS

President Donald Trump’s false claims about his inauguration crowds, reinforced by White House Press Secretary Sean Spicer with a series of additional false claims, might seem like a small issue.

But it cuts to the heart of concerns about the new administration from the campaign and could foreshadow further conflict.

Spicer reassured the public that “our intention is never to lie to you” in his first press briefing Monday and acknowledged that one of his statements regarding Metro ridership on Inauguration Day was wrong. But he stood by his claim that Trump’s inauguration was the most watched in history, pivoting to a debate over online streaming audiences that was separate from the president’s initial false assertion that up to 1.5 million people attended the event in person.

Related: Trump Adviser Conway Stirs Mockery, Concern With 'Alternative Facts'

Trump had moved on to another falsehood by that evening in a meeting with Congressional leaders, two sources told NBC News, where he expounded on a debunked accusation that millions of undocumented immigrants voted for his opponent Hillary Clinton. There is no evidence for the theory, which appears to have originated on conspiracy sites after the election, but Trump has raised it before to justify his popular vote loss.

From his first moments as a candidate, Trump regularly made statements that were not only untrue but were easily debunked. In many instances, Trump used these “alternative facts” to paint a dire picture of the country that he claimed so-called experts were deliberately hiding from view. Often, numbers that he denounced as inaccurate were compiled by government agencies his appointees will now oversee.

This dynamic raises questions about whether he will accept their findings as president or apply pressure to change the results if they run counter to his goals. Some activists spent the weeks leading up to Trump’s inauguration archiving government reports on issues like climate change for fear they might become inaccessible later. Concerns about Trump’s relationship have been reinforced by his intense skepticism of America’s intelligence community as well as his penchant for conspiracy theories.

Related: Fact Check 2016 — Tall Tales from the Trail

When it came to the economy, Trump’s views on the unemployment rate seemed to shift at random. In his speech announcing his presidential run, he claimed that “real unemployment” was as high as 20 percent and not the 5.5 percent rate at the time. Later that year, he claimed the unemployment rate could be as high as 42 percent. At his first press conference since the election, he said 96 million people were looking for work; the most charitable interpretation indicates he was off by 82 million.

While economists often use other measures of unemployment than the one most commonly cited, which only includes people out of work who are actively looking for a job, Trump’s numbers departed from those broader methods to the point of absurdity. His “96 million” claim, to name one example, appeared to include everyone from high school students to nursing home residents as frustrated job seekers.

This all-over-the-map approach creates an obvious problem — how do we judge Trump’s success or failures on the economy? Will he still be claiming 42 percent of people are out of work when he’s running for re-election? Or will he go back to the traditional number — currently 4.7 percent — to gauge how things are going?

One reporter put this to Spicer at Monday’s news conference, asking: What is the national unemployment rate?"

Related: Donald Trump Will Not Release Tax Returns, Adviser Says

Spicer danced around the question, saying Trump was “not focused on statistics” and directing the press to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, which he noted put out “several versions” of the employment rate.

You could ask the same question for topics related to immigration, crime, and border security. What is the baseline for success if the president disputes the basic facts used to judge the results?

Trump claimed repeatedly during the campaign and last month after winning that “the murder rate in the United States is the largest it's been in 45 years.” In fact, FBI statistics and independent studies put it at historic lows, even after a surge in some major cities. He re-tweeted inaccurate crime statistics from a fake source claiming blacks targeted whites for violent crimes, and then refused to acknowledge any error when pressed. He suggested there were 30 million undocumented immigrants while government and nonpartisan estimates, including a study by advocates for lower immigration, consistently put the number between 11 to 12 million.

Then there’s health care, an area where Trump has promised “insurance for everybody” along with “much lower deductibles” and no cuts to Medicaid or Medicare. There is no consensus Republican plan so far to replace the Affordable Care Art, but many individual proposals would violate these terms. If the Congressional Budget Office concludes that his changes to the ACA would cause people to lose insurance or pay more for care or lose Medicaid coverage, will he accept the finding? Will we be able to rely on statistics from the Department of Health and Human Services to judge the results once the plan goes into effect?

In the case of these domestic issues, information is available from independent sources to check against the White House account. In a military conflict, reporters can only do so much to quickly confirm facts on the ground and there’s a history of administrations offering up rosy reports that turn out to be false. During the Vietnam War, Presidents Lyndon B. Johnson and Richard Nixon suffered from accusations of a “credibility gap” as their official accounts were steadily contradicted by new information.

Supporters of Trump defended his tall tales during the campaign as an effective use of “truthful hyperbole,” a technique outlined in his book “Art Of The Deal” that he used to playfully buff up his image or make a larger point. Regardless of motive, his behavior has made it impossible to tell which statements were literal, symbolic, or just a joke.

There may come a time when Trump needs the benefit of the doubt on something — a national security threat, an economic crisis or a false accusation — only to find a credibility gap that can’t be closed.