The founding myth of Donald Trump's political career goes something like this: He descended down a golden escalator at Trump Tower, surrounded by an organic mob of well-wishers all there to see him announce his 2016 campaign for president.
"You know the famous escalator scene," Trump once said in reminiscing about that day in June 2015. "We went down that escalator. ... It looked like the Academy Awards." (Politico dubbed it "The Escalator Ride that Changed America" in 2019.)
Except that the whole thing may have been, like so much of Trump's life and his presidency, a fake.
In an interview with Insider as part of a Trump oral history project, Trump campaign manager Corey Lewandowski alleged that Michael Cohen, Trump's one-time fixer, had paid people to come in and act as supporters.
"That's a Michael Cohen special," Lewandowski said. "Michael Cohen decided that he was going to go hire one of his buddies and pay his buddy without getting any campaign approval. You know, $50 for every person to come in, to stand in Trump Tower."
Cohen, who flipped on Trump to lessen a sentence on fraud and tax evasion, insisted to Insider that Lewandowski was lying. "Any allegation of payments to actors is an absolute lie that was promoted by Corey Lewandowski."
Of course, because Cohen is Cohen, it's worth parsing that statement a bit. Lewandowski isn't alleging that Cohen paid professional actors to serve as stand-ins for the Trump announcement; he is saying Cohen was paying random people who were coming into Trump Tower to act as though they were there for the speech.
What's remarkable about Lewandowski's admission is a) how he seemingly flat-out lied when he was asked, at the time, whether any guests were paid to attend and b) how Trump's obsession with drawing big crowds was there at the very beginning of his political life.
On the first point, there can be no debate that Lewandowski said the opposite of what he's saying now. Soon after Trump's campaign kickoff, Lewandowski was positively Shermanesque about the idea that people had been paid to be in the crowd.
"You know Donald Trump. There is nobody who believes that when Donald Trump goes somewhere he does not generate the biggest, largest, and most rambunctious crowds on the planet," Lewandowski said at the time. "It's just not true, unequivocally. The Donald Trump campaign and Donald Trump did not pay anybody to attend his announcement."
On the second point, Trump's obsession with crowds -- and them being them the biggest and best -- is weirdly consistent through his entire presidency.
In the immediate aftermath of his inauguration, Trump sent Sean Spicer out to the White House press corps to claim, ridiculously, that "this was the largest audience to ever witness an inauguration, period."
At virtually every rally he held in 2018, Trump would regularly remark on the size of his crowds. "The crowds at my Rallies are far bigger than they have ever been before, including the 2016 election," he tweeted in October 2018. "Never an empty seat in these large venues, many thousands of people watching screens outside. Enthusiasm & Spirit is through the roof. SOMETHING BIG IS HAPPENING - WATCH!"
Trump canned his 2020 campaign manager Brad Parscale in July 2020 following a lackluster crowd at his first return back to the campaign trail in June in Tulsa, Oklahoma.
"Trump was furious after a much-hyped return to the campaign trail fell flat," CNN reported at the time, adding: "In the weeks leading up the event, Parscale predicted as many as 100,000 people would show up to support the President. Instead a meager crowd of just over 6,000 came, the outdoor event was canceled and Trump was embarrassed -- laying much of the blame on Parscale who personally offered up Tulsa as one of the locations for the President's return to the trail."
And, even when polls suggested he was headed to a defeat at the hands of Joe Biden, Trump touted crowd size as an indicator that all the polls were wrong. (The polls were sort of wrong, by the way.)
"Can you believe how many people are back there?" Trump said at a Florida event in October 2020. "You want to turn the cameras around to show — that is a lot of people here today. They never report that." *(Trump also argued that "nobody shows up to [Biden's] rallies.")
The crowd obsession all began that day back in June 2015. And it was never true.
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