President Trump started Tuesday with a pair of angry tweets at the New York Times, demanding that his hometown paper “get down on their knees & beg for forgiveness” over its coverage of the Russia probe. “They are truly the Enemy of the People!” he wrote in his latest withering attack on the free press.
But by midday, the president was hobnobbing in the Oval Office with a group of White House news photographers, signing their photos of him and joking that they should hold a fundraiser at his golf course. Trump kept some of the prints and returned others with praise such as “Fantastic Job!” and “Amazing Talent!” in his distinctive handwriting. He chatted with Doug Mills, the Times’s lead White House photographer.
The president’s participation, for the third year in a row, in a private reception to celebrate the winners of the White House News Photographers Association’s annual awards, reflected a sharp dichotomy in how the former reality-television star views the pack of correspondents that covers his every public move.
Although Trump has waged rhetorical war on newspaper writers and cable television correspondents, he has been more appreciative of the photographers who produce two-dimensional images the visually minded president has often admired.
Trump has been so taken with pictures of himself published in newspapers that aides have requested high-quality prints on his behalf, and the president has retweeted images from photojournalists on social media.
“It seems like he does appreciate the photographers when we go in there,” said WHNPA President Whitney Shefte, a Washington Post multimedia journalist who, along with Post photographer Jabin Botsford, were among those honored at the reception. “Last year, he said something like, ‘You do great work.’ It’s a very different message than what he says publicly.”
White House officials did not respond to requests for comment.
The WHNPA has been meeting with presidents dating, at least, to Harry Truman, who was named honorary president of the “One More Club,” a moniker that referred to photographers’ insistence on constantly yelling out for another photo. The organization is independent from the White House Correspondents’ Association, which hosts the annual April fundraising dinner that Trump has boycotted since taking office.
On Saturday, Trump again will skip the dinner in favor of a campaign rally in Green Bay, Wis.
WHCA President Olivier Knox, the chief Washington correspondent for SiriusXM, said past presidents, like Trump, have generally displayed a greater affinity for news photographers than writers or television pundits because they are viewed as less threatening.
He recalled an occasion when first lady Laura Bush was peppered with questions from reporters during a rare visit to the media workspace at the White House.
But when she entered an area where photographers are seated, the questions stopped. “Welcome to ‘stills country,’ ” one told her, meaning photojournalists who do not take video.
“I like ‘stills country,’ ” the first lady replied, according to Knox.
While all presidents have been mindful of their image, Trump — whose private charity spent $30,000 on two portraits of him and whose golf resorts displayed a fake Time magazine cover bearing his visage — is perhaps the most hyper-attuned to the cameras.
During a luncheon at his first high-stakes summit with North Korean leader Kim Jong Un in Singapore in the summer, Trump jokingly instructed photojournalists to make the two leaders “look nice and handsome and thin.”
Trump’s tone is perhaps most striking in the way he has dealt with the New York Times, which he has denounced as “failing” — even though the publication has thrived, with more than 4 million total subscribers.
In early February, Trump jousted with the Times’s publisher over the dangers posed by his hostility toward the press corps and complained that he felt entitled to “a great story” from the newspaper.
But by the end of that month, during a dinner with Kim at their second summit in Hanoi, Trump pointed to Mills, the Times photographer, and called him “one of the great photographers in the world.”
That praise came after White House aides had attempted to bar newspaper and wire service writers from the photo op because they had shouted out questions at an earlier event. The aides relented and allowed in one writer only after the photographers threatened to boycott coverage.
Some photographers have expressed a measure of satisfaction in the access they have to Trump. During President Barack Obama’s tenure, the WHCA logged formal complaints over photojournalists being excluded from events that were open to official White House photographer Pete Souza, who has since published two books of his work.
Mills, a member of the WHCA board, said Trump has offered more daily access, for longer sessions, than any president since he began covering the White House during the Reagan administration.
“For a photographer, you couldn’t ask for anything better,” Mills told the Lafayette (Ind.) Journal & Courier this month. Trump’s official White House photographer, Shealah Craighead, has had a lower public profile than Souza.
In a conversation with his newspaper in March, Mills was asked about Trump’s praise in Hanoi. Trump “obviously looks at my pictures and likes them — but not all of them,” he replied. “And that’s not my job, for him to like them all. I think he understands that I’ve been around there a long time and that I am a fair news photographer who does not have an agenda.”
WHNPA Vice President Jim Bourg, a photo editor at Reuters news service, also said that photographers see Trump more often than they did other presidents. But he added that access at campaign rallies has been more restrictive, and Trump did not attend the organization’s annual gala dinner the past two years.
The group, which also represents video journalists, has issued a sharply critical statement over reports that the White House disseminated altered video of CNN’s Jim Acosta after a contentious Trump news conference in the fall, and it called on the president to temper his hostility toward the media after a BBC cameraman was assaulted by a Trump supporter at a rally in El Paso in February.
But such criticism hasn’t dissuaded Trump from requesting favors from the photographers. During a flight on Air Force One in August, a White House aide asked another New York Times photojournalist for a high-resolution print of a photo he had published of Trump boarding the presidential jet a day earlier amid a cloud of smoke from a ceremonial cannon at Fort Drum, N.Y.
The aide handed him a clipping of the newspaper, on which Trump had underlined the photographer’s name in black marker.