Kellyanne Conway's back and forth with Chuck Todd on 'alternative facts,' annotated
Kellyanne Conway, one of President Donald Trump’s top advisers, presented the White House's false claims about the inaugural crowd size as "alternative facts."
In a Jan. 22 interview with NBC’s Chuck Todd, Conway defended White House Press Secretary Sean Spicer, who had tried to disprove media reports of low turnout at the inauguration. Spicer said Trump drew the "largest audience to ever witness an inauguration, period," which we rated Pants on Fire.
Conway’s remarks caught fire in news reports and social media, with 380,000 Twitter uses of the hashtag #alternativefacts by mid-afternoon Sunday.
Below is a transcript of the exchange between Todd and Conway, edited and condensed for clarity, with annotation.
Todd: Let me begin with this question, the presidency is about choices. So I'm curious why President Trump chose yesterday to send out his press secretary to essentially litigate a provable falsehood when it comes to a small and petty thing like inaugural crowd size. I guess my question to you is why do that?
Conway: Chuck, the president did many things yesterday and the day before that are very meaningful to America. He signed executive orders to stop Obamacare and all of its problems. Many people have lost their-- Millions of people have lost their insurance, their doctors, their plans. So that stops right now.
He's going to replace it with something much more free-market and patient-centric in nature. And on this matter of crowd size, I mean, for me I think the most quantifiable points of interest for Americans should be what just happened a few months ago that brought him here, the 31 of 50 states he won, the 2,600 counties, the 200 counties that went for President Obama that now went to President Trump. And the fact that 29, 30 million women voted for Donald Trump for president. They should be respected. Somebody should cover their voices as well.
I'm about things that are quantifiable and important. I don't think that-- I don't think ultimately presidents are judged by crowd sizes at their inauguration. I think they're judged by their accomplishments. And we know that President Obama and his accomplishments, that there's a lot of unfinished business there.
And on this matter of crowd size, I think it is a symbol for the unfair and incomplete treatment that this president often receives. I'm very heartened to see Nielsen just came out with the ratings, 31 million people watching the inauguration. President Obama had 20.5 million watching his second inauguration four short years ago. So we know people are also watching the inauguration on different screens and in different modes. And that there was, I mean, for me there was a prediction of a downpour of rain. I think that deterred many people from coming. But no question there were hundreds of thousands of people out on the mall and--
Todd: All right, Kellyanne, let me stop you here because...
Conway: ...you know, many people enthused.
Todd: ...you make a very reasonable and rational case for why crowd sizes don't matter. Then explain, you did not answer the question, why did the president send out his press secretary, who's not just the spokesperson for Donald Trump. He could be — He also serves as the spokesperson for all of America at times. He speaks for all of the country at times. Why put him out there for the very first time in front of that podium to utter a provable falsehood? It's a small thing. But the first time he confronts the public it's a falsehood?
Conway: Chuck, I mean, if we're going to keep referring to our press secretary in those types of terms I think that we're going to have to rethink our relationship here. I want to have a great open relationship with our press. But look what happened the day before talking about falsehoods.
We allowed the press — the press to come into the Oval Office and witness President Trump signing executive orders. And of course, you know, the Senate had just confirmed General Mattis and General Kelly to their two posts. And we allowed the press in. And what happens almost immediately? A falsehood is told about removing the bust of Martin Luther King Junior from the Oval Office. No, that's just flat out false. And the pool writer...
Todd: And it was corrected immediately...
Conway: But why, Chuck, why was it said?
Todd: But Kellyanne, no, let me ...
Conway: Chuck, why was it said in the first place because everybody's so presumptively negative ...
Todd: ...climb, climb into the head of that reporter...
Conway: No, that it's okay. No excuse me. Oh no, no, no, that reporter was writing to on behalf of the press pool. That falsehood got spread 3,000 times before it was corrected. And it's still out there.
Todd: It does not excuse and you did not answer the question.
Conway: I did answer your question.
Todd: No, you did not.
Conway: Yes, I did.
Todd: You did not answer the question of why the president asked the White House press secretary to come out in front of the podium for the first time and utter a falsehood? Why did he do that? It undermines the credibility of the entire White House press office on day one.
Conway: No it doesn't. Don't be so overly dramatic about it, Chuck. What...You're saying it's a falsehood. And they're giving Sean Spicer, our press secretary, gave alternative facts to that. But the point remains ...
Todd: Wait a minute — alternative facts? Alternative facts? Four of the five facts he uttered, the one thing he got right was Zeke Miller. Four of the five facts he uttered were just not true. Look, alternative facts are not facts. They're falsehoods.
Conway: Chuck, do you think it's a fact or not that millions of people have lost their plans or health insurance and their doctors under President Obama? Do you think it's a fact that everything we heard from these women yesterday happened on the watch of President Obama? He was president for eight years. Donald Trump's been here for about eight hours.
Do you think it's a fact that millions of women, 16.1 million women, as I stand here before you today, are in poverty along with their kids? Do you think it's a fact that millions don't have health care? Do you think it's a fact that we spent billions of dollars on education in the last eight years only to have millions of kids still stuck in schools that fail them every single day? These are the facts that I want the press corps to cover.
This is why I'm here at the White House to change awful numbers like that.
Todd: I understand this. What I don't understand is that is not what yesterday was about.
Conway: Yes, it is. It's what this presidency's going to be about.
Todd: So you did not answer the question. You sent the press secretary out there to utter a falsehood on the smallest, pettiest thing. And I don't understand why you did it.
Conway: Look, I actually don't think that — maybe this is me as a pollster, Chuck. And you know data well. I don't think you can prove those numbers one way or the other. There's no way to really quantify crowds. We all know that. You can laugh at me all you want. But I'm very glad...
Todd: I'm not laughing. I'm just befuddled.
Conway: Well, but you are. And I think it's actually symbolic of the way we're treated by the press. The way that you just laughed at me is actually symbolic of the way — very representative of the way we're treated by the press. I'll just ignore it. I'm bigger than that. I'm a kind and gracious person.
But let me tell you something else, I'm really glad that NBC News and Chuck Todd all of a sudden are so thrilled to cover crowd control because we were mocked daily for talking about the significance of our historic rallies during the campaign.
Donald Trump brought in historic crowds to Michigan to Wisconsin, to Pennsylvania, to Florida, to North Carolina. And on great days we were ignored and on most days we were mocked. And those crowds did matter because he built a movement the likes of which people hadn't seen.
Todd: Of course they mattered. What — but what I don't understand is why he's litigating this? Why stand in front of a memorial at the C.I.A and talk about crowd sizes?
Conway: What else did he say to the C.I.A. though? You don't want to talk about the rest of this — what he said at the C.I.A. First of all, his very presence at the C.I.A. sent a great message to our men and women, our brave men and women in the intelligence community. He went to the C.I.A. yesterday. He thought he was going to witness the swearing in of his C.I.A. director, Mike Pompeo. But you know why that didn't happen, Chuck? Because the United States Senate won't confirm Mike Pompeo as C.I.A. director. Ask Senator Schumer why that is.
Todd: That is going to be a question I have for him.
Conway: Ask him why Donald Trump as president has nominated 21 of the 21 cabinet positions only to have two, a grand total of two, confirmed while he takes office? So the Democratic Senate wants to hold up treasury, commerce, energy, education. The list goes on.
We should have the respect and deference of having a cabinet seated so this peaceful transition of power occurs properly. But he went to the C.I.A. because lies have been told about his relationship and his respect for the intelligence community. So he went right there. We had over 1,000 requests to attend. We can only accommodate three or four hundred and he embraced the intelligence community.
Todd: Can I ask you to tell me what lies about the intelligence community were uttered about President Trump's relationship with the intelligence community?
Conway: That he doesn't respect them. Do you think what outgoing C.I.A. director said yesterday in a statement using the , the language he used about our new president of the United States somehow, quote, improves our relationship with the intelligence community? It is irresponsible. It is reprehensible. And it is totally unnecessary.
Todd: Okay. Then let me ask you this, is this responsible, he called it, "was disgraceful, intelligence agencies allowed any information, so false and fake out, disgrace, say, that's something, Nazi Germany would have done and did so." "Disgrace," that was on Jan. 11. Was it right to compare the intelligence community with Nazi Germany?
Conway: What's not right, Chuck, is that the day before, you had people releasing a dossier full of junk and lies and fake news. And why did they release the dossier? Because people knew that Russian hacking was fading from view as an election had been totally dismissed as having any credibility or nexus towards our election results.
Hillary Clinton lost that election fairly and squarely basically running on the same messages we heard here yesterday in Washington, D.C. and elsewhere. I heard, like, a repeat. It was this awful sequel, as awful as the original. We just litigated all this in the campaign.
They came to Washington and said the same thing. Donald Trump, President Trump is very concerned about the leaks that have occurred. And is very concerned that people would really denigrate the way the respect that he has for men and women of the intelligence community. Why don't you go back to his statement on Friday, January 6th after he had an intelligence briefing that he and Vice President Pence won't talk about because it's top secret. And they won't leak about it because you're not supposed to. They're protecting our intelligence and they're protecting the security of people like you and me and our children, Chuck, by not leaking.
But what he said that day on Jan. 6, put that statement up for your viewers if you want to do us an honest service. He said in the beginning of the statement, "I respect the service of our great men and women in the intelligence community." And then the last part of the statement was that he looks forward to directing his own intelligence team within 90 days of becoming the president of the United States to give us a better view of cyber security and to put better security measures in place. It'd be nice if he had a C.I.A. director. He doesn't today because the Democrats are holding up his C.I.A. director.
Todd: I want to go back to a question that you continue to deflect. Why was it necessary to send out the press secretary on his first day in office to utter a provable falsehood that now calls into question everything the press secretary say — will say from here on out?
Conway: No it doesn't.
Todd: It will for many Americans.
Conway: No it doesn't. You want them to hear that. You want them to hear that I'm not answering your questions, which I'm doing. You want them to hear that they can't trust our press secretary. I think that it is a very dangerous statement to make.
Todd: What was the motive then? What was the motive to have this ridiculous litigation of crowd size?
Conway: And now you're casting it and your job is not to give your opinion, Chuck. Respectfully, your job is not to call things ridiculous that are said by our press secretary and our president. That's not your job. You're supposed to be a news person. You're not an opinion columnist.
Todd: Can you please answer the question? Why did he do this? You have not answered it. It's only one question.
Conway: I'll answer it this way. I'll answer it this way. Think about what you just said to your viewers. That's why we feel compelled to go out and clear the air and put alternative facts out there.
Todd: So it's a political tactic? It's a political tactic to come up with alternative facts and try to set up the press as your enemy?
Conway: No I didn't say that at all. And that's not why I'm here in this building. I'm here because of all the provable, quantifiable facts, because of the devastation and destruction in our schools with our health care, in our economy, with our small business owners.
And yes, certainly — with terrorism, infrastructure. This guy is going to do so much in the first week. He's going to talk to Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu today about the Middle East, about Iran. He's going to end the week receiving Prime Minister Theresa May from the U.K. here. His first foreign leader to be received here.
They're going to help renegotiate U.S./U.K. trade. But you want to talk about things the media doesn't want to cover. You totally missed Brexit and Theresa May. You totally missed Trump's campaign. You want to talk about provable facts? You've missed it all along. America doesn't really I mean, look, you got 14 percent approval rating in the media that you've earned. You want to push back on us. And yet you have a 14 percent approval rating.
Todd: All I'm looking for is an answer to a simple question. You never answered why or the motivation of what was necessary about doing that yesterday.
Conway: Tell me why you just referred to us as ridiculous. Tell me why we were lied about with the MLK bust.
Todd: I said I think the debate is ridiculous. And I did not say anything about ML — look, you're deflecting in order to avoid to answer the question.
Conway: NBC covered that false report as did 3,000 other articles that are still up online. Chuck, you can't have a press coming into the Oval Office on day one of the administration. We welcome them in to be open and gracious and to have a great relationship with the press.
They came in. And the press pooler wrote a false article about the removal of the bust of Martin Luther King Junior days after President Trump met with Martin Luther King III, Martin Luther King Junior's son in New York City. Had a very constructive, open conversation where Martin Luther King Junior's son said, "We have to unify and help heal the country together." And boom, any snarky attempt to try to undercut this president in the Oval Office while he's doing the business of the country. I mean, we can't have this kind of relationship.
Todd: I completely agree. But I'm sitting here trying to answer basic questions and you're trying to attack me with…
Conway: I'm not attacking you.
Todd: ...some weird Twitter feed...
Conway: You attacked us as ridiculous.
Todd: ...with some weird Twitter feed that you guys are obsessed with. Look, I'm going to have to leave it there. You have another interview to go to. I have the rest of the show to go to. Kellyanne Conway I appreciate coming on to share your views.
Conway: Ask Chuck Schumer why we don't have cabinet secretaries to prove. We nominated 21, they've approved two.
Todd: I will, among the questions I have for him.
Conway: Thank you.