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Witcover: The Trump administration's credibility problem

Nearly a week after President Trump's inaugural speech, what lingers is not its eloquence or poetry -- there was little of either -- but rather its dismal view of where this country stands now and Mr. Trump's conceit, as he put it at the Republican convention, that "only I can fix it."

His recitation of the disintegration of the nation's manufacturing base in the Rust Belt and elsewhere -- "rusted out factories scattered like tombstones across the landscape" -- can't be denied. But Mr. Trump ignored today's near-record low unemployment rate of 4.7 percent and the 11.3 million new jobs created over the last eight years.

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He offered his brutal assessment in the presence not only of departing President Obama but also of Republican President George W. Bush and Democratic President Bill Clinton. Also present were leading legislators of both parties -- integral parts of the Washington establishment he so sweepingly excoriated and pledged to decimate but whom he now will need to advance his own agenda.

In effect, the inaugural address turned out to be another Trump political rally dressed up in the elaborate and hallowed trappings of the orderly transfer of national power. He further demeaned the American political system by dismissing the change of party leadership and crowing that he was giving the country "back to you, the people."

The day after the inaugural, a peaceful and even joyful Women's March on Washington topped the turnout for the inauguration to such an extent that it triggered another Trump freak-out against "the lying press." He trotted out his new press secretary to double down on the childish schoolyard taunt that, contrary to press reporting, the turnout for his inauguration was the largest ever.

The new Trump mouthpiece, Sean Spicer, took to the White House briefing room Saturday to lecture the assembled reporters on how to do their jobs. He insisted the inaugural crowd was the largest in history -- "period!" -- a lie clearly disproved by photographic and video evidence. Then he marched out without taking a single question, which supposedly is a prime duty of the presidential press secretary.

On Monday, when he returned to the briefing room, Mr. Spicer at first said nothing about his earlier lecture to the White House regular reporters, instead calmly and cordially reviewing Mr. Trump's day and answering their questions for a prolonged period.

Then a somewhat chastened Mr. Spicer engaged in playing word games. He argued he had included in his crowd total not just the in-person attendance but also the millions who had watched the inauguration on television and via Internet streaming, which was not the question at hand.

Jonathan Karl of ABC News, one of the White House regulars, pointedly asked Mr. Spicer: "Is it your intention to always tell the truth from that podium? And do you pledge never to knowingly say something that is not factual?"

Mr. Spicer replied, "It is," but added, "Sometimes we can disagree with the facts." On Sunday, Kellyanne Conway, the new counselor to the president, ludicrously characterized Mr. Spicer's misinformation as "alternative facts," a worrisome indication of how the press and public can expect the truth to be distorted from now on.

It is was a sorry disintegration of relations between the news media and the presidency not seen here since the Nixon-Agnew era, when the White House press secretary, the hapless Ronald Ziegler, lost all credibility as a Nixon puppet. He was generally mistrusted and even despised by much of the White House press corps, reporters often turning to congressional sources to get reliable information.

After Nixon resigned in 1974, his successor, Gerald Ford, seemed to usher in a more trustworthy era by appointing a highly regarded member of the press, Jerry terHorst, Washington bureau chief for the Detroit News, to take over as his press secretary.

Only a month into the job, when Ford suddenly pardoned Nixon for any crime he may have committed in the Watergate scandal, terHorst disagreed with the decision and resigned, boosting his reputation in the country.

Mr. Spicer now has acknowledged that he, like Mr. Trump, got frustrated, maintaining that telling the truth is, or should be, "a two-way street" with the press corps having the same responsibility. But he needs to remember that he speaks for the president on policy, whether he shares his peeves or not.

Jules Witcover is a syndicated columnist and former long-time writer for The Baltimore Sun. His latest book is "The American Vice Presidency: From Irrelevance to Power" (Smithsonian Books). His email is juleswitcover@comcast.net.

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