Crowd size is trivial; trusting White House numbers is not

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Story highlights

  • Lemmon: Crowd size is a trivial matter, but very soon the White House will have to deal with matters of real weight and importance
  • It is up to the new administration and the public it serves to make sure that numbers are accurate and honest

Gayle Tzemach Lemmon is a senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations and author of the New York Times best-seller, "Ashley's War: The Untold Story of a Team of Women Soldiers on the Special Ops Battlefield." The opinions expressed in this commentary are hers.

(CNN)The Trump administration is only a few days in and already the fight with reporters over the media's view of the White House and the math behind its crowd counts is occupying America's headlines.

A tug-of-war over facts -- both real and alternative -- is now in full swing, with the White House pulling crowd count numbers over to the side of the unbelievable with the committed vigor of the believer.
"This was the largest audience to ever witness an inauguration -- period," said White House press secretary Sean Spicer on Saturday in a statement to reporters following the women's march in Washington -- which drew attention for the size of its crowd. Facts quickly refuted Spicer's statement and showed the Pennsylvania Avenue math to be wrong.
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    Crowd size is a trivial matter. Yes, energized crowds showed up to support the new president despite the rain. Many people did travel DC to see Trump and to show their enthusiasm. But a record crowd it was not. That fact is a trivial matter -- all kinds of presidents have not drawn record crowds -- until that fact becomes the focus of a numeric volley of untruths from the White House podium.
    Because the fact is, very soon the White House will have to deal with matters of real weight and importance for national security, where the numbers simply cannot be wrong. The White House will have to stay bigger than its perceived opponents because when it comes to these issues, every detail matters, no room for error exists and the facts are indeed a matter of life and death.
    Up ahead, the administration faces key decisions on Syria and whether to support Syrian rebels or whether it should draw closer to Russia, Iran and Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, who outlasted the last US president despite his 2011 statements that the time had come for Assad "to step aside."
    On ISIS, the decision must be made whether to draw closer to the Syrian Kurds in the fight to retake the ISIS stronghold of Raqqa -- and risk drawing Turkey's ire in the process -- to find a new set of battlefield partners in the ISIS fight, or to bring in more US troops to lead the effort themselves.
    In Afghanistan, the question is whether to keep US forces there, to add more troops or to scale back the effort in America's longest war. These are just a few of the decisions on the immediate horizon.
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    In each one of these urgent battlefield policy questions, the numbers will matter a great deal. How many US forces, sent where, for what period of time and with what kinds of authorizations? These numbers cannot be fudged, smudged, selectively chosen, or subject to alternate views, because there is only one reality: America is a nation at war despite America's indifference to the fights waged in its name.
    Many in the armed forces have chafed over the Obama administration's management of military operations.
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    Some will be looking forward to a new administration that may be swifter with decisions and more willing to give authorizations that on-the-ground commanders deem necessary and have sought.
    But trust is critical. The fundamentals are important. And the math is not a trivial matter.
    It is up to the new administration and the public it serves to make sure that numbers are accurate and honest -- and not trapped in the kind of political theater about crowd size we saw Saturday.