In the lobby of every federal building, just inside security turnstiles and before the elevator banks, a framed photograph of the president has always hung on the wall.
Not so anymore. Nearly eight months after Donald Trump’s inauguration, pictures of the president and Vice President Pence are missing from thousands of federal courthouses, laboratories, military installations, ports of entry, office suites and hallways, and from U.S. embassies abroad.
On the walls are empty picture hooks left when workers took down official portraits of President Barack Obama and Vice President Joe Biden on Jan. 20. Federal employees and visitors passing through the hallways since then have puzzled over the missing images, wondering why the traditional signal of the formal transition of power has yet to occur.
The changeover appears to be tangled in a bit of red tape and mystery.
Federal agencies ordered photographs of their new commander in chief months ago. But they say they are still waiting for the Government Publishing Office, the printer of official portraits, to send them for distribution by the General Services Administration, which owns or leases 9,600 federal buildings across the country.
The Government Publishing Office says it has yet to receive the images from the White House. And the White House says the president and vice president have not yet decided when they will sit for the type of high-quality official photographs usually churned out by the modern GPO, continuing a portrait tradition that began after the Civil War.
“GPO is standing by to reproduce copies of the president and the vice president’s photos for official use in federal facilities and will do so as soon as the official photo files are provided to us,” agency spokesman Gary Somerset said in email.
He added, “I do not have a timeline on when GPO will receive those files from the White House.”
The missing pictures might seem to be a minor matter in an administration consumed with hurricane relief, the North Korean nuclear threat, an investigation into Trump campaign contacts with Russians, illegal immigration and other issues.
Yet to some, the absence of the ubiquitous official photos is puzzling, considering the chief executive’s fame was propelled by reality television and he has never been reluctant to promote his image. Some agencies have been so determined to show the president’s photograph that they’ve improvised, downloading a scowling — and some say unflattering — photo of Trump posted on the White House website.
“You would think Trump would want his portrait spattered all over federal buildings,” said Douglas Brinkley, a presidential historian who teaches at Rice University and has been critical of Trump.
Obama’s portrait was hung by the third month he was in office in 2009. The GPO printed more than 130,000 of his photographs in three sizes. Employees transferred the digital image from a computer to a printing plate and finally to one of the agency’s four color presses.
President Bill Clinton’s official photo was up by June 1993, the Associated Press reported.
White House spokeswoman Lindsay E. Walters said in a statement: “All agencies who have requested the President’s portrait have received a photo to display. We’re still in the process of creating the official portrait. Once it’s been produced, the White House photo office will distribute it to all of the agencies and other requests.”
The downloaded photos showing up at some government offices are photocopied and stuck into picture frames. The results can be pixelated or shadowy and too saturated. The president is in a dead-serious pose, with the U.S. flag and White House in the background.
Walters said agencies may also request a version of that portrait, as U.S. Customs and Border Protection has.
Still, the president’s image is missing, even in downloaded form, from most agencies — the State Department, the Energy Department, the Department of Housing and Urban Development, to name a few.
Experts say the tradition still carries deep significance.
“It’s a recognition that the president is the leader of the country but also the leader of the government,” said Max Stier, president of the nonprofit Partnership for Public Service. “One aspect of that is to be physically manifested in the buildings.”
Michael Beschloss, another presidential historian, said the administration may just keep the makeshift image in place as a reflection of Trump’s view of the bureaucracy. “This act is intended to convey, deliberately or not, a president who wants to stand at one remove from his own federal government,” Beschloss said.
It’s not just the likeness of POTUS that’s missing. Many Cabinet secretaries’ images are absent, too, in some cases apparently because they don’t want to upstage the president.
Environmental Protection Agency Administrator Scott Pruitt’s framed photo hangs in the agency’s Washington headquarters. But there is no photo of Secretary Ben Carson at HUD, or Secretary of State Rex Tillerson in the elegant, formal State Department lobby flanked by flags of the world.
“As soon as the White House official portraits of the President and Vice President are available, the State Department . . . will distribute the White House portraits and the official portrait of the Secretary of State to all offices as well as all posts abroad,” the agency said.
The empty walls are a stark contrast with the tenures of Tillerson’s predecessors, John F. Kerry and Hillary Clinton, whose photos greeting foreign diplomats and dignitaries covered the hallway.
Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke’s portrait went up in August, alongside the scowling-Trump image. The same Trump image is also up at the Defense Department headquarters at the Pentagon.
An official at another agency, who requested anonymity because he did not want to openly criticize the administration, was told by senior officials there that the photo of the president from the White House website was not an option because it is not official. “We are patiently waiting” for the GPO to print portraits, he said.
“We ordered hundreds of them back in January,” the official said. “I periodically ask what’s going on, because it’s noticed by employees in our agency that there’s nothing up.”
In February, the absence of a portrait left a Florida congressman who is a disabled veteran particularly unsettled when he visited a Department of Veterans Affairs hospital in West Palm Beach for a medical appointment. Some of his constituents had called him to complain that the hospital had not hung photographs of the president and the new VA secretary.
Rep. Brian Mast (R-Fla.) helped hang their photos. But the staff took them down later, apparently out of concern that they were not official.
VA Secretary David Shulkin quickly ordered 1,500 hospitals and clinics in the agency’s far-flung system to download an image of the president posted on the website, print it out and hang it (along with Shulkin’s photograph).
“Though our facilities have been following the correct protocol [by not hanging a photo], we realize that it is more important to display these temporary photos to demonstrate a clear chain of command and respect for our Veterans,” Shulkin’s directive said.
It will be swapped out for the official image, whenever that arrives, VA officials said.