Donald Trump has grown frustrated with many parts of being president. But the former showbiz star is still in love with one perk: The Oval Office photo op.
Despite the weight of multiple Russia investigations, open war with GOP leaders and a stalled congressional agenda, Trump has spent considerable time grinning behind the Resolute Desk, where he summons visitors from PGA star John Daly to former campaign aides to pastors, truck drivers, tech CEOs, teachers and even journalists to pose in front of the gold curtains.
He tells aides, from senior White House advisers to his private bodyguard, Keith Schiller, to snap the photos on cell phones, or he shouts for Shealah Craighead, the official White House photographer, to come in. The often impatient president will sometimes pose for several minutes per sitting, taking variations of a photo with a single group. He even stands with people to inspect the photos.
“Check the lighting,” one senior White House official said, describing his comments. “Are your eyes closed? Do you want another? He knows these are special moments for people.”
The photos illustrate how master-marketer Trump sees the job, White House officials say — and are one part of the presidency that don’t seem to grate on him, even though other presidents have barely tolerated the click-and-grin sessions.
While Trump scowls in his official presidential portrait and lashes out at his critics on Twitter and at rallies, the private Oval Office photo sessions are largely all teeth and charm, revealing a softer side that Republican leaders wish he’d show more often in public.
Several advisers and aides say Trump appears happiest when showing the Oval Office off, almost seeing it as the ultimate prize, just as he once showed off his celebrity photos, trophies and other memorabilia, such as Shaquille O’Neal’s shoes, at Trump Tower.
Presidents have long posed for ceremonial pictures in the Oval Office or along the rope line. Presidential historian Douglas Brinkley said photos became particularly prominent in John F. Kennedy’s presidency, while President Barack Obama famously got in trouble for taking a selfie with other world leaders during Nelson Mandela’s funeral.
“I wouldn’t call Lyndon Johnson and Jimmy Carter great photo presidents,” Brinkley said. “Reagan, because of the Hollywood side, loved to take pictures.”
George W. Bush also would sometimes take dozens of photos in a day, said Eric Draper, his official photographer. “I was there well before the iPhone,” Draper said. “No cameras were allowed. It was important to be there for the physical part.”
Draper said he would inspect Bush’s schedule and know when to come in. In Trump’s White House, visitors will sometimes surprise other aides or the photographer, who has to be nimble with her schedule.
But Trump also uses the photo sessions to assert his dominance over visitors. He doesn’t accept no for an answer, repeatedly encouraging people reluctant to pose, including reporters and others who may feel uncomfortable taking photos with the president. One business executive said everyone knew the picture was a demand in a recent meeting, even though some other executives said they felt squeamish afterwards because the photos can become fodder for criticism in a polarized political era.