It can be hard, especially amidst the current administration, to pinpoint those truly remarkable, scandal-ridden days upon which an entire presidency hangs in the balance — but yesterday, September 6, is a strong contender. Between the disastrous Brett Kavanaugh hearings in the Senate, the fallout from an anonymous New York Times op-ed written by one of Trump’s own senior officials, and the continuing slow drip of damning excerpts from a new tell-all book by renowned journalist Bob Woodward, Thursday was a real doozy.
And that’s before we even got to the latest revelations in the Trump administration’s very first scandal: the size of Trump’s inauguration crowd.
When this administration first took over (I think this must have been back sometime during the Bronze Age), the very first press briefing by then press secretary Sean Spicer focused on one very simple and easy-to-answer question: Was the audience for Donald Trump’s inauguration the largest ever?
The answer, of course, is no. It’s not even close. During the event itself, most Americans got a good laugh when photos began circulating comparing the sparse attendance of Donald Trump’s inauguration with the first inauguration of President Barack Obama eight years prior. No expert analysis or meticulous inspection of the photos was needed: The National Mall in Washington, D.C. was barely visible beneath a sea of people in 2009. In 2017, on the other hand, you could fit a few pickup football games in the empty fields where people normally would stand.
The photos were embarrassing to be sure, especially for a man as thin-skinned as Donald Trump, who has sued people for insinuating he is not as rich as he lets on. But had the White House simply taken the L and moved on, the story would have been lost to memory after a few days. Instead, Trump demanded his loyal sherpa Sean Spicer appear on national television and lie repeatedly.
Which brings us to a report in the Guardian on Thursday that uncovers new details, some 20 months later, of just how far the administration — including Donald Trump — was willing to go to deceive the American people.
Newly released documents obtained by the Guardian show that while most White House staff were still moving into their new offices, Donald Trump himself was demanding the National Park Service — which is responsible for, among other things, taking official photographs of events held on the National Mall — edit pictures taken during the inauguration to make the crowd appear less empty.
The documents obtained by the Guardian don’t include the photographs themselves, so it’s hard to know the extent to which any photographs were selectively edited, or indeed whether any manipulated photos were ever made public by the White House. But the reports clearly state that Donald Trump and Sean Spicer personally spoke with the acting director of the NPS Michael Reynolds and requested photographs that showed more people on the Mall.
The reports — published by the office of the Inspector General and released to the Guardian via Freedom of Information Act request — detail how NPS communications officials tried to satiate Donald Trump by instructing the photographer assigned to the event to go back and “edit a few more” photographs from the inauguration, in addition to the 25 he submitted on the day of the event.
The photographer submitted a second round of photos that were more carefully cropped to make it appear as though there were additional crowds out of frame.
The request for edited photographs was curiously omitted from the final report that was published by the Inspector General’s office in June.
With the benefit of hindsight, these revelations might not register as much of a surprise. Since Day 1 of his campaign, Donald Trump has lied about virtually everything, from the height of his buildings to his involvement in payments to the adult film star he had an affair with.
But these newly disclosed, behind-the-scenes machinations by government officials do point to something more nefarious than simple fabrication — they offer a glimpse of just how far Donald Trump and the people in his orbit will go to buttress their lies. It is not a large leap to go from doctored photographs to digitally manipulated video or audio in the service of muddying the truth. And that is the point at which the federal government will have engaged in actual, non-hyperbolic propaganda against its own citizens.
Trump’s base of extremely online white supremacists already engage in a primordial version of this on a daily basis — crudely photoshopping screenshots of cable news and changing a few numbers on a poll to make Trump appear more popular than he is. Among the perpetrators: Trump’s large adult sons, who shared one such screenshot comparing their father favorably to President Obama, before quietly deleting it hours later. Knowing this is what allows Donald Trump to stand on stage and recite wholly fabricated poll numbers as fact.
Since the White House’s insistence — in the face of photographic evidence — that Donald Trump outdrew Barack Obama on inauguration day, the lies have somehow gotten more brazen and, predictably, more volatile. When the eulogy for the Trump Administration is finally written, its original sin will be but a footnote in a large saga of corruption, incompetence, and moral emptiness. But thanks to Trump’s unfathomable insecurity, it won’t be forgotten.