“Reince,” Spicer would tell his longtime colleague, “the president has the right people around him and we can keep him in check.” Priebus was less sure.
Spicer’s first press briefing was slated for Monday. That Saturday, the first full day in the West Wing, was meant for staffers to move in and figure out how to work the light switches and overhead intercom (it took a while on both). Spicer, wearing a suit that didn’t fit quite as well it should have, was unpacking his office when he was summoned.
Trump wanted him out there. He wanted a briefing. And he wanted Spicer to say that Trump’s crowd was bigger than Obama’s. It was a lie, by any measure. But it was the first full day, and Spicer’s job and proximity to power were already on the line. So he did it. He lied.
In the grand scheme of things, an exaggeration about crowd size seems quaint, trivial. And indeed, most Republicans on Capitol Hill laughed it off. But it set a template, and not just because Spicer’s credibility was thrown away in his first moments on the job. This was a lie that had come from the White House podium. The levers and power and symbols of government were behind the lie, even if it was a fairly inconsequential one. White House staffers could have snuffed out the lie but they didn’t, for fear of losing power and access. A year later, a National Park Service employee admitted he edited photos to cut out empty spaces to make the crowd look bigger; an early example of a government employee misusing power to make the president look good. Trump got ridiculed, to be sure, but no one told him no. There were no real consequences. He could lie and put the power of the government behind it.
And soon, he turned his attention to the vote.
Fueled by a refusal to admit any sort of defeat, even though he now called the White House home, Trump went on a crusade and, for the first time at the executive mansion, made repeated and unsubstantiated claims of voter fraud. How many votes, in Trump’s estimation, were cast illegally? Well, just about exactly the number by which he lost the popular vote to Hillary Clinton.
Clinton won the popular vote by nearly 2.9 million ballots, handing Trump the largest popular vote defeat of any president who won the Electoral College. That didn’t sit well with the president-elect, who sought ways to explain why such a humbling defeat couldn’t possibly be legitimate.
The answer included a golfer.
Trump began privately telling confidants—and then a group of Republican lawmakers soon after taking the oath of office—that his friend, professional golfer Bernhard Langer, had tried to vote near his Florida home on Election Day only to be turned away. Worse yet, people who didn’t “look like they should be allowed to vote” were permitted to stay in line, the president claimed, citing potential Latin American countries of origin for the would-be voters. He told the story to Senate and House Republicans, who were noshing on pigs-in-a-blanket as they gathered in the White House’s State Dining Room for a get-to-know-you just a few days after Inauguration Day.
Langer later denied that the story had happened that way, and his daughter noted that he, as a German citizen, was not permitted to vote in the United States anyway. But it took hold in Trump’s mind, as did the apocryphal tale that Democrats were loading up buses to drive voters from deep-blue Massachusetts across the border into swing state New Hampshire, causing the president’s narrow defeat in a state that, since his primary win there in February, he deeply prized. And all those votes in California must be from illegal immigrants, Trump thought.
A framework was established: the Republicans eating hors d’oeuvres at the White House said nothing to dispute Trump’s claims of voter fraud. White House chief of staff Priebus prodded Trump to change the subject, according to those in attendance, but none of the law makers pushed back, even slightly, to the president’s wildly erroneous claims. Nor did they object when he took to Twitter to announce a major federal investigation into his evidence-free claims.