They were all waiting for President Trump to become visible as he rode in a golf cart through his 800-acre private golf club in Sterling, Va.
“This was definitely stretching the limitations of my equipment and the technology,” said Botsford, 30, who in his five years covering Trump had never before photographed the president golfing. “It was very hard to tell which groups of golf carts were his.”
Photographing the president anytime he plays at his Trump National Golf Club course is a challenge. Members of the media aren’t allowed on the course, and the best vantage point across state lines on the shore of the Potomac River is often blocked by trees. The photographers on foot have to run along the river to keep pace with Trump as he moves from hole to hole aboard his golf cart.
But last Saturday’s assignment had suddenly taken on particular significance. Like everyone else in the United States, the photographers had just learned that media organizations had declared Joe Biden the winner of the presidential election.
Their task now was to get the first pictures of Trump in the wake of that news breaking.
“We were shocked that it was in that exact moment that we’re basically looking at him as we’re finding out historic news,” said Al Drago, an independent photojournalist.
As counting stretched on for days after the election, with key states tallying millions of mailed-in ballots amid the coronavirus pandemic, photographers who follow Trump’s every move had no way to know exactly when and where he would be when the presidential race was finally called.
On Saturday morning, the race was still undeclared when the photographers learned about Trump’s golf outing.
Pat Semansky, a staff photographer with the Associated Press who has covered the White House during weekends for the past several months, told The Post he predicted where to find the president when he received an email with an updated call time to arrive at the White House. Reporters and photographers who cover the administration receive daily emails from the White House press office with the president’s schedule.
“Generally, as a rule of thumb you have the assumption, it’s kind of a hunch, that if it’s a Saturday or Sunday, there’s good weather and the president is in town, if they put out a guidance, it’s likely that he’s going to go golf at his club in Virginia,” Semansky, 36, told The Post.
And he was right. Semansky, who had never photographed the president from that location and was the first one to arrive at about 10:30 a.m., contacted Drago, who was still on his way: “You golfing with Trump, today?” he texted.
Out of the three photographers, Drago was the only one who had previously twice captured the president golfing from that location. This time, Drago and his girlfriend, who joined Semansky shortly after that, came prepared with binoculars.
Then, between 11:24 and 11:34 a.m., several news organizations, including The Post, began calling the race for Biden, whose projected victory in Pennsylvania put him past the 270 electoral votes required to win. Botsford, who was still on his way, got a push alert on his phone — suddenly this was a much more important piece of history.
Botsford hadn’t brought as long a lens as the other two photographers had, which made it difficult for him to spot the president. But with the help of Drago and Semansky, who each had longer lenses, he was able to follow Trump every step of the way.
At 11:45 a.m., the photographers got the first glimpse of the president after he had lost the election. He wore a white “MAGA” hat, a windbreaker and dark pants while playing golf with a small group. The photographers had no way to know whether or when Trump had heard about the election call.
But Botsford tried to read Trump’s demeanor, a hard task considering the distance. Botsford said it did appear as though the president checked his phone a couple of times and took at least one call.
The photographers then tried to track Trump’s every other move on the course. Every time the president moved to a new hole visible from their vantage point, the three photographers jogged with heavy photo equipment on their shoulders. And every time the president stopped at a new hole, they reframed their shots as they dodged the branches and leaves blocking the view.
“It’s so far away that it’s hard to see facial expressions,” said Drago, 27. “So I was looking at his body language and also I was just looking to photograph when he was actually golfing.”
As the three photographers ran up and down the path for more than an hour, joggers and bikers along the trail constantly stopped them to ask what types of birds they were looking for.
“People had various reactions when we told them, ‘No, we’re actually looking for the president golfing,’ ” Semansky said, laughing.
Semansky said he wasn’t trying to capture a specific reaction — just to document whatever he saw at the moment.
Aside from the history, he said the president’s golf session was mundane. Every now and then, he would swing his club and chat with the group of men accompanying him.
“It just seemed like a normal day at the golf course from where we were,” Semansky told The Post.
About 1:30 p.m. Saturday, when the president was no longer visible, the photographers returned to their cars to file their photos. Although most of the photos were cropped, grainy and far away, that didn’t matter.
In the end, the moment they documented made the images memorable, Botsford said.
“I feel thankful that I made that picture on that day because it’ll be a historic photo,” he said. “There are a lot of photos of him golfing, but this one is about him golfing and finding out that his presidency is about to end.”