Appearances matter deeply to this president because he finds truth in the posturing rather than in the facts.
So it’s not surprising that when the White House released a photograph of the president and his team in the Situation Room on the Saturday afternoon of a raid in which Islamic State leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi died, the image looked as though it was a poster for an old-fashioned war epic.
The photograph is quite formal and posed, with everyone spit-shined like it was yearbook picture day. Trump sits in the center of the room with the presidential seal looming over his head like a gold-rimmed halo. He is flanked by a small group of white men. The military men are in full uniform, their once-sturdy jawlines a bit softened from age. Their mouths are set in a stern expression.
Joint Chiefs Chairman Gen. Mark Milley, second from right, comes across as peeved and impatient. Brig. Gen. Marcus Evans on the far right, seems rather disgusted with the whole picture-taking proposition. But honestly, perhaps when called upon to be focused and resolute, they simply have resting grumpy face.
The civilians are in suits and ties — the usual reds and blues. A lot of gray hair is clipped into regulation cuts with deep side parts. It’s a Saturday, but they are dressed as formally as if it were midweek. These men are always on duty; they are always working. At least, they appear to be.
Trump is the star. His gaze is the only one that matters and it is straight on. He’s squinting into the camera as if he’s peering directly into the sun. His mouth is a narrow, down-turned line. Of all the characters in the photograph, Trump has the most studied expression of severity. It’s a boss man pose. It’s reminiscent of Trump’s “Apprentice” boardroom face, something conjured up for the camera.
All the men sit at attention with their hands folded in front of them or resting neatly on the table. And that table! It’s a cacophony of laptops, binders, landlines, tangled Ethernet cords and White House coasters because no one would want to leave plastic water bottle rings on the shiny wooden table.
The mess of a table looks like a place where work has happened. The men look completely disconnected from that work. They’re posing, but they’re not engaged. It is as though just before the photograph was snapped someone demanded: Look menacing everyone! Click!
This picture doesn’t give the public any more details on the logistics of the raid, although the president was voluble in his description of what unfolded. The photograph is meant to capture a historical moment. It’s not the equivalent of a thousand words annotating what happened; instead, it’s a dense volume about the people who called the shots. They are not a diverse lot. In this picture of the inner circle, there are no women, no people of color and only a hint of generational mix. They all sit around the table stoic and resplendent in their sameness.
The Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi photo is in many ways the opposite of the Osama bin Laden photo taken during the Obama administration’s raid on the al-Qaeda leader’s compound in 2011. The Obama picture was candid while Trump’s is posed. The group assembled by Obama is diverse. And it takes a split-second before the eye focuses on Obama himself, as he’s not in the center of the picture but off to the side. The presidential seal is mostly blocked by the sheer number of people — more than twice as many as in the Trump picture.
The differences in the photographs speak to the differences in the men’s personalities, governing style and relationship with the media. Obama preferred hearing from a multitude of voices. In his official White House photographs, the emphasis was on authenticity (an elusive goal for any White House) and an element of Everyman commonality. For Trump, the number of divergent voices in the room has steadily narrowed during his time in office. His official photographs do not underscore his regular-guy bona fides; they elevate him above hoi polloi. So many of those pictures have him seated behind his Oval Office desk while a chorus of visitors stand formally around him. His preferred location is center stage in a controlled environment.
But most striking in Trump’s Situation Room photo is the absence of the full arc of human emotions — barely any emotions, really. There is no worry, apprehension, empathy, prayerfulness. To oversee such a raid, when the lives of American military personnel were put at risk, when children died, when lethal justice was exacted, the only emotion on display is detachment.
The men exude power. But what about the complexity of the humans who wield that power? No matter how just or righteous the show of force may be, one still hopes that the mighty understand the gravity and solemnity of their decisions.
This photograph that the White House loves so much captures a truth about the president’s humanity. It appears to have gone missing.