Donald Trump began his first full week as US president firmly on the defensive, after millions of Americans took to the streets to protest against his election and the White House came under fire for brazenly lying to the public.
Trump’s press secretary, Sean Spicer, used his first White House briefing to shout at journalists about what he incorrectly termed “deliberately false reporting” on Trump’s inauguration, declaring: “We’re going to hold the press accountable.”
“This was the largest audience ever to witness an inauguration, period,” said Spicer, in one of several statements contradicted by photographs and transit data. “These attempts to lessen the enthusiasm of the inauguration are shameful and wrong.”
Kellyanne Conway, a senior White House aide, told NBC’s Meet the Press on Sunday Spicer had merely been offering “alternative facts”, a phrase that was received with widespread astonishment.
Their remarks followed an estimated 2.6 million people in cities across the US attending “women’s march” protests against Trump, who is accused of sexually harassing and assaulting more than a dozen women and was recorded boasting about groping women by the crotch.
As many as a million people were estimated to have flooded the streets of Washington DC for the day’s main march. Hundreds of thousands more protested in cities such as New York, Los Angeles, Chicago and Boston and in capitals across the world, including London.
The total was far greater than had been anticipated and easily exceeded Trump’s inauguration crowd the day before. The Washington Metro system said 1,001,616 trips were taken on Saturday, compared with about 570,000 on Friday.
But the president on Sunday tried to play down the significance of the demonstrations. “Watched protests yesterday but was under the impression that we just had an election,” he said on Twitter. “Why didn’t these people vote?”
A later post to Trump’s account said that he recognised the right of people to demonstrate.
Trump was earlier sharply criticised for delivering a campaign-style speech in front of a memorial to fallen CIA officers. Saying he was at “war with the media”, Trump called accurate news reports about his inaugural crowd being smaller than Barack Obama’s “a lie”.
“Trump should be ashamed of himself,” Brennan said in a statement.
While the topic of the inauguration attendance was trivial, that Trump’s team was immediately willing to deny reality from the world’s most powerful office alarmed figures across the political spectrum. Reince Priebus, Trump’s chief of staff, also echoed Trump’s false claims in interviews on Sunday.
“If Trump can’t handle the press on crowd size, just wait until they report on the economy, budget and healthcare,” said Adam Schiff, a Democratic congressman from California. “Anything unfavourable he will call a lie.”
The weekend activity cast doubt over speculation that Trump, who repeatedly made wildly false statements during his campaign, would be jolted into more sober and conventional operations by the machinery of government and the gravity of his responsibilities.
Asked on ABC’s This Week whether he had full confidence in Trump, John McCain, the Republican senator and former presidential nominee, replied: “I don’t know.”
Trump also stated falsely during his speech at the CIA on Saturday that reports of a feud between him and US intelligence officials had been invented by journalists, who he said were among “the most dishonest human beings on Earth”.
Only 10 days earlier, Trump had personally likened the US intelligence establishment to Nazi Germany. He also suggested US officials had leaked to the media an explosive and unverified dossier by a former British spy alleging links between Trump and Russia.
Some of Trump’s most loyal supporters in Washington defended the president’s unusual remarks. “You’re going to see more of this,” Devin Nunes, a Republican congressman for California, told CNN’s State of the Union. “He was just having a good time.”
The new administration also received a significant boost on Sunday when McCain and Lindsey Graham, a senator for South Carolina, announced that they would vote for the confirmation of Rex Tillerson, the president’s nominee to be US secretary of state.
Graham and McCain, two of Washington’s most hawkish senators on foreign policy, had earlier suggested the relationship Tillerson cultivated with Moscow while chief executive of the Exxon energy corporation may be reason to block his appointment.
“Though we still have concerns about his past dealings with the Russian government and President Vladimir Putin, we believe that Mr Tillerson can be an effective advocate for US interests,” the senators said in a statement.
The Senate, which must approve a president’s cabinet appointments, is expected this week to approve several nominations by Trump, including Senator Jeff Sessions as attorney general and congressman Mike Pompeo as CIA director.
The new White House, however, remains under pressure on several other fronts. Having promised earlier this month that he would hand control of his property empire to his adult children, Trump has produced no paperwork proving that this was done. Ethics campaigners have said the move would, in any case, not remove Trump’s myriad conflicts of interest.
Ethics lawyers from the Obama and George W Bush White Houses say that Trump is already violating the US constitution by continuing to collect revenues from foreign government officials. Trump has said he will transfer such profits to the US Treasury.
This weekend his son in law, Jared Kushner, was cleared by the justice department to take an advisory role in the White House, despite widespread concerns over the application of a federal nepotism law.
A petition on the White House website for Trump to release his personal tax returns has been signed by more than 200,000 people. Opinion polls show that a majority of Americans want Trump to publish the documents, which he withheld during the campaign in a break with decades of convention.
But aides said that Trump would continue to withhold the returns, which are thought to show that he paid no federal income tax in some years, and may reveal previously undisclosed business activity.
“He’s not going to release his tax returns,” Conway told ABC. “We litigated this all through the election. People didn’t care.”