Week in Trump: From 'alternative facts' to the border wall

President Trump wasted little time before generating headlines and controversy

Week in Trump: From 'alternative facts' to the border wall

Image: Alex Brandon AP/Press Association Images

Even bearing in mind Donald Trump's actions during the US election campaign, his first week in office was extraordinary and unpresidented... sorry... unprecedented.

For his supporters, there were glasses raised as the new US President took the first steps towards fulfilling many of his headline campaign promises. Those opposed to President Trump looked on in horror over seven days that went beyond expectations.

From 'alternative facts' to increasing tensions between the newly-inaugurated US leader and the Mexican President Enrique Peña Nieto, week one of the Trump administration generated no shortage of headlines.

Donald Trump himself was, well, very Donald Trump. His newly-gained (oval) office did little to tame the billionaire. An incendiary, often frightening inaugural address made few efforts to heal a divided nation, and effectively set the tone for the week and perhaps four years to come.

In the White House, he continued tweeting provocations at his opponents; he remained obsessed over trivialities (inaugural crowd sizes and TV ratings remained particular sources of consternation); and he continued saying whatever he wanted even when that meant ignoring or dismissing verifiable fact (although continued decrying alleged 'fake news').

He did, of course, also take plenty of significant actions during his first week. Here's a partial list:

  • An executive order to "ease the burden" of Obamacare
  • A reinstatement of the ban on the use of US taxpayer dollars to fund abortions overseas
  • A freezing of the introduction of new regulations, and a hiring freeze on civilian positions in the executive branch
  • An announcement that the US would not participate in the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) trade deal
  • Approval to revive two controversial pipeline projects
  • Introduction of several strict border and immigration measures - including an order to start finding the funds of his controversial border wall

Several of his executive orders were far from final, and will require congressional approval and potential years of legislating to realise. Lines, however, were most certainly drawn in the sand.

It was Friday's executive order - putting a temporary ban on immigration from seven predominantly Muslim countries, as well as an indefinite ban on Syrian refugees - that caused the biggest waves on the global stage.

It led to many global leaders, politicians and human rights groups condemning the action, while massive crowds gathered outside and inside US airports in protest. Of course, it was also welcomed by Trump's supporters - further evidence that he was following through on his promises, even if there are likely to be strong legal challenges ahead.

"The Resistance"

Needless to say, the first week of the Trump campaign saw no shortage of opposition.

Saturday 21st of January - the first full day of the new administration - saw hundreds of thousands of people descend on Washington for the Women's March, with similar mass protests against the new president held across the US and indeed the world.

The crowds appeared to far eclipse those seen on inauguration day, although by Trump's standards his inevitable criticism was reasonably mild.

On the foreign stage, the Netherlands announced plans to set up an international fund for safe abortion in response to Trump's funding ban.

Some of his most contentious remarks involved the potential use of torture against terror suspects - comments which were at odds even with some of his own administration members.

Just as controversial: Trump's environmental plans. The White House webpage refreshed on Inauguration Day to highlight the newly sworn-in leader's intention to remove "harmful and unnecessary policies such as the Climate Action Plan".

Media reports from the US suggested that some US federal agencies had been issued with communications 'gag orders', which appeared to affect agencies who were researching or highlighting climate change.

The reports were denied by the White House, although the Twitter account for the Badlands National Park in South Dakota became a viral sensation when it tweeted - and subsequently deleted - several tweets highlighting climate change data.

All of this was accompanied by the emergence of several 'rogue' social media accounts, seemingly committed to tweeting what the official agencies reportedly could not. A group of scientists also announced their plans to organise a 'Science March' on Washington in protest over the new administration's policies.

Wednesday and Thursday, meanwhile, saw a dramatic escalation in tensions between the US and Mexican leaders after Trump confirmed his intention to build a massive wall along the US-Mexico border.

President Peña Nieto quickly repeated his insistence that Mexico would not pay for the wall, and announced he was cancelling a meeting with President Trump over the matter.

White House Press Secretary Sean Spicer fired back with the suggestion that they would consider a border tax of 20% on Mexican imports to pay for the wall.

The administration swiftly played down that suggestion, insisting it was only one potential measure of many being considered. However, the international controversy over the matter highlighted that the dispute with Mexico will play out for quite some time.

"Alternative facts"

One story that really grabbed the world's attention in week one, however, it was the new administration's clashes with the media.

On Saturday evening, barely 24 hours after Donald Trump's inauguration, Sean Spicer stepped out to deliver his first official remarks at the press room podium.

Closer to a rant than a traditional press conference, Spicer unleashed a stinging attack on the media. His first criticism - over an incorrect media report that a bust of Martin Luther King had been removed from the Oval Office - was a justified complaint, albeit over a story that was swiftly retracted with an apology from the reporter.

The second complaint was more noteworthy. Over several minutes, Spicer attacked media outlets for their alleged 'inaccurate' reporting of the inauguration number. Spicer's comments included several claims that were quickly & easily proven to be inaccurate, while ignoring the substantial evidence that the attendance was smaller than the crowds attracted by Barack Obama.

"The President is committed to unifying our country, and that was the focus of his inaugural address," a visibly angry Spicer said. Struggling to stay coherent, he added: "This kind of dishonesty in the media, the challenging -- that bringing about our nation together is making it more difficult."

Trump himself criticised the media in some of his first remarks as President.

Speaking at the CIA headquarters on Saturday, he suggested: "I have a running war with the media. They are among the most dishonest human beings on Earth."

The following day, the administration doubled down on their claims despite widespread disbelief on social and traditional media alike. In what could well prove to be one of the most infamous and ominous phrases in all of US politics, Trump advisor Kellyanne Conway suggested that Spicer was merely offering "alternative facts".

Trump's chief strategist Stephen Bannon also made some extremely hostile remarks about the media later in the week.

Spicer returned to the White House podium on Monday and on subsequent days for more traditional press conferences, albeit still featuring a few eyebrow-raising claims. But even in a rather more co-operative mood, the spectre of Saturday evening lingered.

The message was clear: the Trump administration is going to war with the media, and it doesn't matter if a few facts get twisted or ignored along the way.

As extraordinary as the spectacle was, none of this marks a major departure from Trump's approach during the election campaign. In fact, it is in many ways the natural continuation of the ways he which he leveraged some voters' distrust of the media during the election campaign. He has a long record of attacking the media - The New York Times, a frequent target of the new president, maintains a substantial record of his Twitter insults against the media (and others) - and his relationship with facts has always been acrimonious to say the least.

In an official capacity, however, the familiar approach has taken on a very new weight. While few governments have a completely harmonious relationship with the press, and although many politicians have historically been liberal with the truth, the approach of the Trump team was on a different and more brazen scale. Many reporters and commentators noted such concerns in the immediate aftermath of Saturday's fascinating events:

Some good could come out from tensions between the White House and the press, however. 'Access journalism' is an important part of the reporting process, but can breed complacency. A hostile administration may well encourage journalists to rely less on the official line and dig deeper to find the true story, as nebulous as the concept of truth is in an age of "alternative facts". Indeed, the approach of many media outlets has already grown notably more adversarial.

Ultimately, the dispute over crowd sizes is a relatively minor and trivial spat - even compared to some of the other 'week one' actions - but the Trump administration's response was a clear line in the sand, a potential precedent for the more serious matters that will inevitably arise in the coming months and years.

White House press conferences are often relatively bland and tightly controlled affairs: unless there's a major statement from the president, briefings are of little interest to many people outside the room and media / politics junkies. But given Sean Spicer's extraordinary entrance into the fray, you can almost guarantee a lot more people will be paying close attention to the White House briefing room from here on out.