If you saw at least some of the photos of Trump’s telephone meltdown the other day, you got a good snapshot of the bully that has taken over the Oval Office. The images are notable for something else, though. That’s how much photos leave to the imagination.
As reported, Trump’s call with Malcolm Turnbull, scheduled for an hour, only lasted 25 minutes before Trump went ballistic over a pre-arranged deal for the U.S. to take in Muslim refugees. For some stretch of that time, pool photographers were allowed to photograph the call through a paned glass door. (It was probably the one stage right of the desk that exits to the West Wing colonnade. You can see the edge of the door above, and also a reflection in the glass.)
But it’s ultimately good photo editing that enables us to fill in the story in our own mind. Otherwise, we never know or see as much as we think we do. There are several things we know about the twenty-five minutes from the media accounts. For example, we know the call went bad because the Trump White House leaks like a sieve. The WAPO story led with the headline:
‘This was the worst call by far’: Trump badgered, bragged and abruptly ended phone call with Australian leader.
These next three items come from the NY Times.
Trump had been joined for the call by Bannon, Flynn and Spicer.
Given Spicer is not in any of these media images, we know the pictures must be later in the call.
“Trump made the call to Turnbull about 5 p.m. Saturday” after Trump had already talked to Putin, Shinzo Abe, Angela Merkel, and François Hollande.
If he’s that touchy most of the time, Trump must have been on a pretty thin rope by that late in the day. “President-ing” is hard work!
Turnbull tried to move the conversation away from “their impasse over refugees to discuss the conflict in Syria ….But Trump demurred and ended the call.”
So we know that things were going back-and-forth for at least a little before Trump actually lost it, then hung up.
This is a tighter version of the photo by Getty’s Drew Angerer that leads the post. In this version, by Reuters’ Jonathan Ernst, it’s hard to know what’s up with Trump, but Bannon seems tired, bored, maybe bored out of his mind? We are earlier in the call perhaps? Or, are we actually closer to the explosion given how Trump and Bannon both are allergic to everyday process or business-as-usual?
In this shot by Al Drago for The New York Times, we see Trump in incredulous mode. Bannon is looking down but we can guess he’s more engaged now. Perhaps that’s his “wing man” (or “I didn’t see anything”) face when Trump goes on the offensive?
In this shot, Trump is pretty animated, and it seems Bannon is observing. Maybe Trump is giving it to Turnbull now? Timing and sequence-wise, I would guess this scene occurs a mere instant after the previous one. But who knows? Back to the Trump-Bannon chemistry, does this depict how Trump works himself up while the strategic Bannon, the real munitions expert, relishes it like a voyeur?
This shot was also taken by Angerer. Trump looks pretty steely here. Is his right hand clenched? And, did this scene come between the last two, or does it follow the last one, Trump commandeering the conversation and now telling Turnbull off? But then, maybe it’s earlier. What’s magic about a good news photo — that is, until we look at several or we ask too many questions — is how much each individual picture seems to explain.
Finally, this AP photo by Alex Brandon was published widely. I want to believe this was right before Trump hung up. I want to further think Trump is feeling pretty righteous now, and he’s sharing the mood with the photojournalists through the window. Even more, I want to guess that, as the call went south, Trump was spurred to give “the bird” to Turnbull, as well as all those horrible, horrible people from the lame stream media staring at him through the window.
But then, it’s hard to exactly tell.
We’d like to thank NY Times photographer, Al Drago, for the following Twitter exchange this morning.
In the tweets, as you see, Drago clarifies how long (not very long!) and at what stage in the call the pictures were made. It is not information we usually concern ourselves with dealing as we do with visual politics and political perception. The point of this particular post, though, had as much to do with how much we assume from these types of photos. That is part of the magic of (effective news) photography — that the pictures generalize more broadly and contain plenty of information that pertains generally as well as specifically, in spite of the exact instant. Drawing inferences about Trump’s manner and his hanging up on Turnbull are also natural, of course, when an accurate caption about the overall event (as in 2, 3, and 6 below) necessarily highlights that fallout.
(photos 1 & 5: Drew Angerer/Getty Images. caption 1 & 5: President Donald Trump speaks on the phone with Australian Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull in the Oval Office of the White House, January 28, 2017 in Washington, DC. Also pictured at right, National Security Advisor Michael Flynn and White House Chief Strategist Steve Bannon. On Saturday, President Trump is making several phone calls with world leaders from Japan, Germany, Russia, France and Australia. photo 2: Jonathan Ernst/Reuters. caption 2: Ties with ally Australia were strained over a reported acrimonious phone call between President Trump and Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull. Trump described an existing resettlement plan as “dumb” and “the worst deal ever,” the Washington Post reported, and accused Australia of trying to export the “next Boston bombers.” The call had reportedly been scheduled to last an hour but Trump cut it short after 25 minutes. photo 3: Al Drago/New York Times. caption: Mr. Trump’s contentious phone call with Mr. Turnbull seemed to be one more example of a strained alliance, this time with a country that has fought on America’s side since World War I. photo 4: Pete Marovich/Pool photo via European Pressphoto Agency) via Washington Post. photo 6: Alex Brandon/AP. caption 6: In this Jan. 28, 2017, file photo, U.S. President Donald Trump speaks on the phone with Prime Minister of Australia Malcolm Turnbull in the Oval Office of the White House in Washington. For decades, Australia and the U.S. have enjoyed the coziest of relationships, collaborating on everything from military and intelligence to diplomacy and trade. Yet an irritable tweet President Donald Trump fired off about Australia and a dramatic report of an angry phone call between the nations’ leaders proves that the new commander in chief has changed the playing field for even America’s staunchest allies.)