Trump’s inauguration on January 20th immediately drew comparisons to former presidential inaugurations. Perhaps the most widely publicized aspect was the dramatic discrepancy in attendance portrayed through photos like the one below juxtaposing Trump’s inauguration (left) with Barack Obama’s 2009 inauguration (right).
The day after his inauguration, while addressing the CIA, Donald Trump took issue with the media’s coverage:
But, you know, we have something that’s amazing because we had — it looked — honestly, it looked like a million and a half people. Whatever it was, it was. But it went all the way back to the Washington Monument. And I turn on — and by mistake I get this network, and it showed an empty field. And it said we drew 250,000 people. Now, that’s not bad, but it’s a lie. We had 250,000 people literally around — you know, in the little bowl that we constructed. That was 250,000 people. The rest of the 20-block area, all the way back to the Washington Monument, was packed. So we caught them, and we caught them in a beauty. And I think they’re going to pay a big price.
On January 26th, in an interview with ABC’s David Muir, Trump reiterated his claim:
We had the biggest audience in the history of inauguration speeches.
The evening of Trump’s CIA speech, White House Press Secretary Sean Spicer held a press conference which he kicked off by rightfully criticizing a Tweet from a Time magazine reporter erroneously claiming that a bust of Martin Luther King, Jr. had been removed from the White House. But he then dramatically strayed from the facts while attempting to bolster Trump’s claims around crowd sizes from earlier that day.
We know that from the platform where the president was sworn in, to 4th Street, it holds about 250,000 people. From 4th Street to the media tent is about another 220,000. And from the media tent to the Washington Monument, another 250,000 people. All of this space was full when the president took the oath of office.
Totaling up all of Spicer’s numbers only gets us to 720,000 which is pretty consistent with what organizers were expecting, but still well shy of the estimated 1.8 million who attended Barack Obama’s 2009 inauguration, or the estimated one million who attended four years later, or the “million and a half” that Trump estimated.
We know that 420,000 people used the D.C. Metro public transit yesterday, which actually compares to 317,000 that used it for President Obama’s last inaugural.
These numbers are indisputably false. According to figures provided to The Washington Post by WMATA officials, 570,557 people used the Metro between 4 a.m. and midnight on the day of the inauguration — actually more than Spicer claimed, but far fewer than the 1.1 million trips taken during Barack Obama’s first inauguration in 2009, and the 782,000 trips taken four years later when he was reelected.
Midday ridership numbers tell a similar story. According to WMATA, by 11:00 a.m. the day of Trump’s inauguration, 193,000 trips had been taken compared to 513,000 on 1/20/2009 (Barack Obama’s first inauguration), and 317,000 on 1/21/2013 (Obama’s second inauguration).
Finally, Spicer claimed:
This was the largest audience to ever witness an inauguration — period — both in person and around the globe.
There is no data to support claims that Trump’s in-person numbers were higher than either Barack Obama’s 2009 or 2013 numbers while there is plenty of evidence to suggest that Obama’s numbers were significantly higher. As far as global viewership, nobody knows for sure how many people watched either Trump’s or Obama’s inauguration though various forms of media. But that didn’t stop Spicer from reiterating his claims two days later, even while acknowledging that his Metro ridership numbers had been incorrect:
If you add up the network streaming numbers, Facebook, YouTube, all of the various live streamings that we have information on so far, I don’t think there’s any question that it was the largest watched inauguration ever.
At best, the TV and online data is inconclusive. We do know that, according to Nielsen, Trump’s inauguration was only the 5th most-watched on television:
- Ronald Reagan (41,800,260)
- Barack Obama in 2009 (37,793,000)
- Jimmy Carter (34,127,090)
- Richard Nixon (32,950,900)
- Donald Trump (31,000,000)
And while streaming services like Twitter announced some very impressive numbers like 6.8 million unique viewers, the maximum number of viewers at any one time was only 377,000 — a pretty clear indication that unique viewers and sustained, engaged viewers are not even close to the same metric.
All this is to say that it is pretty clear that Trump’s in-person numbers were significantly less than Barack Obama’s, but it is possible that his TV and online numbers closed the gap. We simply don’t know how many people around the world watched Trump take the oath of office.
So why all the controversy?
Given the credible photographic evidence and the plethora of provable metrics, why is there still so much controversy around the size of Trump’s in-person crowd? While there is certainly no such thing as “alternative facts,” some of the actual facts, it turns out, are somewhat confusing.
First of all, the National Park Service is no longer permitted to estimate crowd sizes. In 1995, the organizers of the Million Man March threatened to file a defamation lawsuit when the Park Service estimated the size of the crowd to be around 400,000. The following year, presumably to prevent future lawsuits, Congress forbid the Park Service from using tax money to estimate event attendance.
Secondly, there is conflicting information as to when one of the most widely circulated aerial photos of the inauguration was taken. Even Snopes cites two different times within the same article (screenshot below since the error will hopefully get fixed; red highlights mine). The first caption says the photo was taken 45 minutes before Trump took the oath of office, but the Facebook screenshot below it clarifies that the photo was actually taken at 12:01:18 p.m., just as Trump was being sworn in.
And finally, CNN released a gigapixel interactive which appears to refute evidence of large gaps in the crowd.
However, the apparent differences between the gigapixel interactive and the Reuters photo can be explained by taking into consideration the dramatically different angles at which the two were shot. Matching up landmarks between the two photos and analyzing each individual “pen” of spectators actually shows very similar crowd sizes.
That brings us back to one of Trump’s comments during his CIA speech:
…honestly, it looked like a million and a half people. Whatever it was, it was. But it went all the way back to the Washington Monument.
From his perspective, which was even lower than the perspective of the gigapixel interactive, it would certainly have looked as though the crowds reached all the way back to the Washington Monument which, in turn, would have seemed to be at odds with the Reuters photo and with the media’s claims. That would explain why, the day after the inauguration, in one of his first acts as president of the United States, Trump called acting National Park Service director Michael T. Reynolds and demanded that he produce additional photographs of the National Mall. According to The Washington Post:
The president believed that the photos might prove that the media had lied in reporting that attendance had been no better than average.
And it would also explain why the president did not ultimately find what he was looking for, and almost certainly never will.
Reynolds was taken aback by Trump’s request, but he did secure some additional aerial photographs and forwarded them to the White House through normal channels in the Interior Department, the people who notified The Post said. The photos, however, did not prove Trump’s contention that the crowd size was upward of 1 million.