The Trump presidency is unique for many reasons, not least because our President is a showman — a reality TV star obsessed with ratings and visuals. Those instincts and his team’s inexperience with the trappings of government have run headlong into the carefully choreographed and stage-managed traditions of the Presidency — a show that’s been running for hundreds of years. The photos of the past 100 days reveal wholesale changes to the equipment our President uses, the design of his productions, and the ways in which the media captures him. We asked Josh King, former production director for President Bill Clinton, to examine each week of photos for those differences.
I’ve been transfixed by how presidents strut the public stage since I was 15, when Ronald Reagan rolled over Jimmy Carter in 1980. I still maintain a large, moldy collection of Time magazines from the 80s which visually chronicle Reagan’s mastery of his office.
By age 27, I was director of production in Bill Clinton’s White House, where presidential choreography was no longer just my obsession. It was my job. And in the two decades since I surrendered my West Wing pass, I’ve made an ongoing study of how the president performs the stagecraft element of his job: a marriage of politics and optics that I mashup as polioptics.
Over the 100 days following Trump’s swearing-in, I have broken down his public appearances at the end of each week of his young administration. On Friday nights, I’d pour a glass of bourbon and then pour through images captured by news photographers on the White House beat, looking for patterns that adhered to, or departed from, how prior presidents managed their image.
Prior to his Inauguration, I gave Trump good odds that he, like Reagan, would be a breakout star.
But the presidency, and the White House, is the world’s most prominent proscenium. It demands discipline from the lead character of our foremost American drama. And as Trump and his team get more comfortable on stage, there will be fewer pratfalls to judge. But in these first 100 days, there’s a lot hidden in the pictures.
Trump immediately switched away from the multiple mic setup used by previous presidents to a single mic on a long gooseneck mount. I dove into the president’s new microphone in a previous piece on The Verge.
After that piece was published, I heard from sources familiar with the performance of the Shure SM57 microphone that Trump’s 20-inch flexible gooseneck, which brings the mic to within two inches of his mouth, increases audio gain by 21dB. Every 10db of gain makes the sound-thru-mic twice as loud.
Trump's voice is four times louder from the source than any prior POTUS
That means Trump's voice is four times louder from the source than any prior POTUS, dramatically widening the president’s vocal range. His purrs and asides now project easily to the back of the house.
Getty photographer Scott Olson, who was arrested covering Ferguson in 2014, got this shot of the Inauguration. Notice the gear by the Blue Goose podium: boom mics to pick up oath, heater vents to warm the speaker, and robo-fired cameras.
To either side of the podium, photographers for many news organizations set up cameras with remote-fired shutters trained on the exact spot where the Chief Justice of the Supreme Court administers the oath of office to the new president. If, from a comfortable distance, photographers can time their clicks just right, the upward angle of the lens from the floor will capture the Capitol Dome in the background and, in the heart of the frame, two men, two upraised hands, and one woman holding a Bible.
Trump uses a teleprompter— there’s nothing new in that. TV tight shots create the illusion that it's not all scripted.
This is the first image of Trump’s military aide carrying "the football," which allows POTUS to launch nukes. The president has five military aides, one officer each from the Army, Air Force, Navy, Marines, and Coast Guard, who serve in the White House for a tour of duty before they’re rotated out to a new command. Their mission is multifaceted, but their core assignment is to carry what’s known as “the satchel,” or “the football,” a leather case containing the documents and equipment that, in an emergency, can allow the president to communicate with military commanders and order a nuclear strike.
Here’s POTUS talking with Putin on January 28th through the glass of the Oval Office. This kind of pool op allows pictures, but no questions. Andrew Jackson looks on.
Much of the activity in Week Two happened in two rooms separated by twelve feet, the Oval Office and the Roosevelt Room. There were exceptions, including an unannounced trip to Dover Air Force Base to pay respects to the remains of fallen Navy SEAL William “Ryan” Owens. The visit didn’t sit well with Owens’ father, Bill, who refused to meet with the president.
The Roosevelt Room got a big workout throughout Trump’s second week. Here's the first pool spray for the week, with small business leaders. Omarosa looks on.
Trump emerges from the Blue Room for the nomination of Neil Gorsuch, where he's "announced" by a WHCA technician. Getty photographer Brendan Smialowski rigged a camera on a lighting truss.
Image enhancers like toe-level robo cams in the Cross Hall allow pics like this of POTUS in the Cross Hall.
Here’s a robo cam rear shot. You can see the skirted lighting truss with other robo cams mounted.
At Mar-a-Lago, the Trumps hosted friends to watch Super Bowl LI. He’s seated behind a rope and stanchion.
POTUS spoke US Central Command for 12 minutes, four fewer than his 16-minute "home run" at the CIA. Notice the pool camera in the center aisle.
Another day, another prop in the Oval Office. Intel CEO Brian Krazanich holds a 10-nanometer silicon wafer on February 8th for the pool to shoot.
POTUS’s world shrinks, as we're back in the Oval Office on February 9th for Jeff Sessions’ swearing-in, with a mini-Goose lectern plopped in front of Andrew Jackson.
POTUS gets a simultaneous translation of Justin Trudeau speaking French, linked through earpiece to translators in the East Room.
POTUS began February 16th telling aides he'd hold a noon presser in the East Room. Few know the logistics involved in such an impromptu decision.
The Social Secretary’s office tasks military social aides to handle audience movements from the Executive Residence. The Chief Usher’s office removes furniture, often rolling up the precious carpet, installs a stage for the president along with a long, low camera platform for the press, and lays out gilded, cushion-backed chairs for reporters, each placed in perfect alignment to one another.
Few know the logistics involved in an impromptu press conference
While that’s going on, the White House Communications Agency rolls in one of the president’s Blue Goose lecterns, affixes a microphone to it, runs cable to the back of the house where WHCA’s sound engineers sit, and sets up three large flat-panel screens that will serve as teleprompters for the president’s opening statement. The government also supplies a teleprompter operator.
The government doesn’t supply lighting or cabling for live television. That’s the province of the major television networks that cover the White House, working collectively as a pool on rotating assignment schedule. Large laundry-style bins of lighting trusses and fixtures are delivered from a local vendor, which are hastily assembled by network lighting technicians. The “pool producer” is in charge of the main shots from the news conference: a head-on camera, backup head-on camera, and a cutaway camera. The producers ensure that all of the cabling from the cameras are properly laid down, gaffed with tape or a covering to avoid slips and falls, and connected into all of the pools participating news bureaus.
When it all has to come together with no notice, and millions of people around the world standing by to watch the president live, it has the makings of a shitshow.
The business of the White House is persuasion, and this shot does it visually. "Boeing" in the background, "Jobs" in the foreground, Trump in the middle.
With a month in office under his belt, Trump began Week Five by replacing Michael Flynn with Lt. Gen. H.R. McMaster. He kept a lower profile for much of the rest of the week, but stayed standing for the duration of his tour through the National Museum of African American History and Culture. The pictures from the visit, in which he declined to check his coat, suggested he wanted to rush through the exhibits.
Trump bonds himself visually with African Americans through seating arrangements
The other events that week in the residence continued a pattern of Trump bonding himself visually with African Americans, even in a crowded scene. At a State Dining Room meeting with manufacturing CEOs, Trump was seated next to Merck CEO Kenneth Frazier, the only person of color among 38 participants I counted in the frame. This strategic seating followed an earlier meeting with pharmaceutical CEOs in which Frazier was again placed next to the president, and a session with retail CEOs in which J.C. Penney’s Marvin Ellison got the honors.
On the evening of February 19th, POTUS announced new National Security Advisor Lt. Gen. McMaster. It was the first "sofa announcement" of a National Security Advisor in history.
On February 23rd, POTUS returned to the State Dining Room for a meeting with manufacturing CEOs. Jared Kushner is to his right, with Merck CEO Kenneth Frasier to left.
Note how the White House often seats Trump next to African-Americans to send a visual message.
This wide shot from CPAC on February 24th shows ceiling signage designed for upward pool images.
Here's how that shot looks through the lens.
Trump’s sixth week in office began with a series of images offering hints about his new life, enjoyed a midweek moment of exaltation demonstrating how successful he could be in office, and ended in a series of tweets betraying how easily he could upend newfound goodwill.
On February 26th, the first "Statish" Dinner: black tie in State Dining Room for the nation's governors. Not designed for press, so there’s intimate lighting.
This is also the first appearance of the “Eagle Toast" lectern, only used for formal occasions. It's safe, for now, from the new POTUS microphone.
There's no greater gig for an advance guy than to plan a POTUS trip to a US aircraft carrier. This is the March 2nd visit to CVN-78.
Trump's visit to Gerald R. Ford went fine. What could go wrong? The ship was tied up in port. The White House used shipworkers instead of sailors in the seats.
It’s fun to tour the ship, but getting photos means close quarters with the press pool, and they'll ask whatever the hell they want.
Still, he got a cool hat and jacket out of the deal, and I thought the backdrop sailors looked sharp in their NWU Type 1 digital blue uniforms.
You'd think the new pride of the fleet would be equipped with 16x9 aspect ratio screens instead of 90s-style 4x3. Get on it, @GGigicos!
If the week ended onboard the ship, it would have been a triumph, but when Attorney General Jeff Sessions recused himself that day from his department’s investigations of Russian meddling in the U.S. election, Trump took to Twitter in the evening to step on his message. That broadside, it turned out, was but a warning shot for the president’s four-tweet barrage on Saturday morning condemning Barack Obama for supposedly tapping his phones before the election.
The next seven-day span may go down as the most tenuous of Trump’s first 100 days. Visually, however, it was almost devoid of action. The White House staff seemed to put their boss on lockdown, a partial attempt at damage control for a weekend of unfounded accusation that sent the DC press corps into a feeding frenzy.
But there was a little visual activity: flanked by Reps. Kevin Brady and Steve Scalise, Trump starts using a new slimline condenser mic kit for group meetings.
Stir-crazy from a week cooped-up in his West Wing warren, week eight saw the president take Air Force One to the farthest points west that he had ventured during his young administration: Ypsilanti, Michigan and Nashville, Tennessee. The first stop was designed to accentuate Trump’s policies; the second stop to remind “D.C. elites” of his enduring popularity. The President also welcomed German Chancellor Angela Merkel.
The network pool funds lighting for president’s news events, and the red carpet of the Cross Hall, the moldings of the mansion interior, the precious artwork along the wall, and the one-of-a-kind standing lamps outside the closed mahogany doors of the State Dining Room didn’t pop with the usual illumination in the still photos of the news conference with Merkel. It would seem the pool is cutting back on funds to light the Cross Hall for POTUS pressers.
Week Nine was a disastrous seven days in which Paul Ryan’s effort to replace Obamacare imploded. When it was done, all that the president had to show for it was a fleeting regression to his childhood days behind the wheel of a Mack truck parked outside his back door.
In the Oval Office, POTUS shows of his newest swag on March 21st: a NASA jacket.
Trump and the truck, an enduring image.
The week brought the onset of White House déjà vu. The slowing tempo of events reflected a growing monotony facing a president shackled by potential damage he could inflict on his brand should he be allowed take unfiltered questions, speak extemporaneously, or otherwise roam free. Trump ventured beyond the White House gates only once in week 10. On that occasion, it was to visit the Environmental Protection Agency where, with a stroke of a pen, he continued to dismantle his predecessor’s legacy.
I emailed Mark Knoller, the CBS Newsman and archivist of presidential comings and goings, who confirmed that Trump had only visited nine states so far and hadn’t yet set foot on foreign soil. And yet, as many outlets reported, the costs associated with his frequent trips to Mar-a-Lago and his wife’s sequestration in Trump Tower in Manhattan were quickly adding up for taxpayers.
The untold story is that there aren’t many places Trump can go without meeting mass protest. A trip to Milwaukee, to visit the Harley Davidson assembly line, was scrubbed for just that reason. And even Palm Beach, his home away from home, has become a gathering spot for sign-carrying gangs of voters demanding a peek at Trump’s tax returns. To meet the growing security threats, the Secret Service is seeking $60 million more for its 2018 budget to counter the risks.
Another week also brought another roundtable to the Roosevelt Room, this time with women small business owners. The White House’s tendency to seat African-American meeting participants next to POTUS continues: this is Jessica Johnson, whose company Johnson Security is impressive. She caught the eye of Deputy National Security Advisor Dina Powell while she was still working at at Goldman Sachs, helping to drive the company’s corporate citizenship initiatives.
By the 78-day mark, the images of Trump’s presidency take on a paint-by-numbers feel: turn on the lights, throw up the Seal, and let the media hit “record.” With two months of rehearsals, Trump was beginning to hold his own, and the choreographed moments came and went without incident. But Week 11 would feature a missile strike on Syria, and the first images of Trump as military leader.
Week 11 began with a visit from Jordan’s King Abdullah. Note the little step platform to give Abdullah comparable stature to POTUS, a common trick during the Dukakis '88 campaign.
A crammed room at Mar-a-Lago, converted into a SCIF, provided the backdrop for Trump’s strike on Syria.
Four overlapping foreign policy issues dominated Week Twelve, shortened by a day as Trump took refuge again at Mar-a-Lago for a long Easter Weekend, this time without his senior staff. First, the battle damage assessment from Syria continued to fill cable news blocks. Second, the 21,000-pound Mother of All Bombs left a huge crater on an Afghan hillside. Third, Kim Jong-un presided over the spectacle of a Pyongyang parade while the U.S.S. Carl Vinson and her battle group steamed toward North Korea. And fourth, the percussion from Steve Bannon’s slow death march grew ever louder as the drums of approaching conflict beat from Moscow to Seoul.
Beyond supplying I-hardly-know-the-guy quotes about Steve Bannon for the New York Post and the Wall Street Journal, Trump’s appearances slowed to an almost one-event-a-day pace, providing far fewer public sightings than the ubiquity of his early weeks in office. His scarcity was not accidental. The White House staff plans presidential moments, or lack thereof, with precision.
The president did appear in the Rose Garden to kvell over Neil Gorsuch. Lest anyone think Trump has found his extemporaneous voice, remember Rose Garden events can be equipped with outdoor jumbo prompters.
On Tuesday, Trump walked across West Executive Drive, within the confines of the White House complex, to talk to CEOs in the State Department Library of the East Executive Office Building. I can't recall any POTUS holding a press event in that space.
Eeking out on more event in Week 12, Trump welcomed the I-85 collapse first responders to the Roosevelt Room. Once again, he’s seated strategically: to his right, Atlanta’s Assistant Police Department Chief Rodney Bryant, and to to his left, Fire Chief Joel Baker.
Week thirteen, visually, was Trump’s most normal since taking office, steadied by mostly traditional events in which the president hits his marks and cracks a joke on cue. It began with the White House Easter Egg Roll, a fixture on the grounds since President Rutherford B. Hayes roamed them, and also included a visit by the Super Bowl LI Champion New England Patriots, whose frequency of South Lawn visits seems dwarfed only by the Easter Bunny.
On April 19, Trump signed S. 544 in Roosevelt Room. Putin has the Arctic Circle. Kim Jong-un has big missiles. Trump holds up sheets of paper.
Italian Prime Minister Paolo Gentiloni visited on April 20. You can see all of the remote-fired cameras sitting on the back of the stage.
Before his Saturday afternoon rally in Pennsylvania to mark his 100th day in office, Trump continues to stay sequestered close to home, but is getting the most out of the stage sets available to him in Washington, D.C.
On April 24th, Trump rang ISS Commander Peggy Whitson. The White House has gone clean with their events. There’s less clutter in Oval.
The video display for the call with the ISS.
That same day, Trump invited members of UN Security Council to lunch in the State Dining Room. After lunch, he took them to Oval "for pictures.”
On April 27th, Trump hosted Argentine president Mauricio Macri. It’s worth noting the service flags — Army, Navy, USAF, Marines, with battle ribbons — have made an Oval comeback. They’ve been gone since Nixon. And Trump’s Oval Office pool sprays are no longer geared to writers for Foreign Affairs; it's more targeted at Town & Country.
Some may wonder why I would obsess over the imagery from a president’s first 100 days. To me, there is nothing more fascinating than how the commander in chief sets the tone for his new administration. Bill Clinton, George W. Bush, and Barack Obama made mistakes in their early days resulting from inefficient scheduling, poor staffing, inept decision making, and over-exposure. In those respects, Trump is no different than his predecessors. The weeks ahead will test his ability to course-correct.
The smoke signals from the West Wing suggest that Trump and his family are wising up about how to manage his presidency. His events are fewer, and his mistakes are fewer. But we are still yet to see Trump fly west of Wisconsin, step foot on foreign soil, or spent a night away from one of his own beds. The stamina and fortitude required to do that, week after week, over eight years have left many of the men who held the same office weak and weary. It is the sheer grind of the job, as much as fraught policy decisions, which leave their mark.
Josh King was White House director of production for presidential events from 1993 to 1997. He hosted “Polioptics: The Theater of Politics,” on SiriusXM Satellite Radio from 2011 to 2014, and is the author of OFF SCRIPT: An Advance Man’s Guide to White House Stagecraft, Campaign Spectacle, and Political Suicide, published by St. Martin’s Press in 2016. Follow him on Twitter @Polioptics.