Reading The Pictures is dedicated to the analysis of news photos and media images.
April 10, 2017

Between the Trump and Obama Situation Room Photos

The image shows Trump sitting at a table with Rex Tillerson, HR McMaster, Reince Priebus, Jared Kushner and others. Photograph: Shealah Craighead/AP

President Barack Obama and Vice President Joe Biden, along with with members of the national security team, receive an update on the mission against Osama bin Laden in the Situation Room of the White House, May 1, 2011. Please note: a classified document seen in this photograph has been obscured. (Official White House Photo by Pete Souza) This official White House photograph is being made available only for publication by news organizations and/or for personal use printing by the subject(s) of the photograph. The photograph may not be manipulated in any way and may not be used in commercial or political materials, advertisements, emails, products, promotions that in any way suggests approval or endorsement of the President, the First Family, or the White House.

If you’ve been following the political news, you know the photograph of Trump and his advisors monitoring the Syrian airstrike has proven almost as sensational as the missile launch itself. Its widespread comparison to the historic Obama White House “Situation Room” photograph, one could argue, is the mission’s most unambiguous success.

One question about the photo is whether the comparison was by design. Because the photography coming out of the White House has been so dismal, I doubt it. Consistent with the inexperience and impulsivity of Team Trump (as impulsive as Trump’s Syria about-face and the confusing missile strike itself), I believe the comparison with the famous image from the bin Laden mission is mostly the consequence of getting senior staff in a secure room (with a White House photographer present) after the embarrassing scene in the Mar-a-Lago dining room after the North Korea missile scare. The Twittersphere did the rest.

As easily as one sees a parallel, and as quickly as the headline writers (note, USAT and The Guardian)  labeled Trump’s secure Mar-a-Lago space the “situation room,” the comparison — like most things Trump — starts to unravel.

Otherwise, the photo betrays the similarity in numerous ways:

The military risk, the risk to Obama’s political standing and Osama bin Laden’s enormous target value after eluding the Bush Pentagon for so many years was almost incalculable. The Trump operation, on the other hand, was  extremely tepid.

The Obama team occupied a small room adjoining the 5,000 sq-ft., technology-laden Situation Room room on the ground floor of the West Wing. Team Trump, in accommodations that were more comfortable, occupied a secure meeting room in Trump’s country club with a “Quiet Area” sign taped to the door.

In the Obama Situation Room photo, everyone is riveted. The Obama team is observing a video relay of the actual raid narrated by C.I.A. Director Panetta from agency headquarters in Virginia. According to Hillary Clinton, the session lasted between 35 and 37 minutes, the photo taken after SEAL commandos entered bin Laden’s house and the gathering in the Situation Room  were temporarily unable to see or hear what was going on. The Trump photo, on the other hand, was taken at 9:15 EST, almost an hour after the operation began. Most of the gathering in the room is immersed with the monitor (especially Trump, with his well documented TV passion), but several seem less so, with Kushner and Tillerson not even looking at the screen. As it turns out, the Trump team is not watching the actual operation. Instead, as reported by the White House, it is receiving a briefing, participating in a video conference call with Pence, Mattis, and Joint Chiefs Chairman Dunford.

As a snapshot of this struggling and chaotic administration, there is other information to be gleaned.

Perhaps the biggest tell in the Trump photo is the fact that the only active military officer in the room is the man guarding the door. In the historic Security Room photo, the people present are strictly limited to senior or highly strategic personnel with a military, senior foreign policy or national security portfolio. The president’s relation to the others might seem peripheral, especially the way Trump and the GOP are now framing his relationship to Syria. Still, the person sitting at the head of the table is the operational figure, Air Force major general, Marshall Webb, Assistant Commanding General of the Joint Special Operations Command. And completing the power triangle, Admiral Mullen, the Joint Chiefs Chairman, is literally standing behind the President.

The Mar-a-Lago shot, in contrast — with Ross, the Commerce Secretary; Mnuchin, the Treasury Secretary; Cohen, the economic advisor; Miller, a political adviser; and Spicer, the Press Secretary, next to or near to Trump — presents an undifferentiated combination of national security players and Trump’s summit entourage jumbled in a pack. Otherwise, the photo reflects what we see in most White House photos these days.  That is Trump necessarily at the center while others orbits him. As elaborated in our Reading the Pictures “Key Pictures of Trump’s First 100 Days” Salon on Thursday night, these scenes are more akin to a potentate, or a king and his courtiers. It suggests a dynamic in which power and importance is determined in proximity to the boss. In the grouping of red-tied bodies clustered around him, it also suggests how much those around Trump tend to mirror him.

If many were dazzled by the operation, the fact it was carried out on the fly is also a red flag. Why would Trump execute this mission while at Mar-a-Lago instead of at the White House alongside his military command? And why overlapping was was previously billed as a monumental Chinese visit? There in their evening clothes, in contrast to Team Obama’s office wear, the attire documents Trump and his entourage rushing off after his dinner with President Xi for this military interlude, that after Trump informed Xi during the meal. Lost in the drama was the denigration of the summit, and the antagonizing of the superpower. With strength and impulsivity being opposite characteristics, the way this elective action was carried out on the fly is mostly puts a frame around the President’s manic nature and his ADD.

Then, what about the personality and power dynamics in the Mar-a-Lago photo?

Many have pointed to Bannon, squeezed in the corner, as having something to do with him being “on the outs.” But in most White House photos, Bannon is typically on the periphery. What is a lot more telling is the centrality, and the generous space taken up by Jared and his White House ally, financier Gary Cohen (with the file folder, behind McMaster). If you’re handicapping the White House power struggle, especially who looks less like a clone of Trump, I’d bank on those two guys.

Far and away, though, the most striking thing about the photo is how Jared, in contrast to everyone else, is not paying attention to the screen. How much that distinction is a symbolic or a practical one doesn’t makes a lot of difference. Regardless of who or what he is staring at, what the photo illustrates is how much Jared’s focus, consistent with Ivanka’s, is overwhelmingly self-serving. If there is really something memorable about this picture, it is how Jared, at the height of national concern, is looking the other way.

— Michael Shaw

(Photo 1: Official White House Photo by Shealah Craighead. caption: President Donald Trump receives a briefing on a military strike on Syria from his National Security team, including a video teleconference with Secretary of Defense, Gen. James Mattis, and Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Gen. Joseph F. Dunford, on Thursday April 6, 2017, in a secured location at Mar-a-Lago in West Palm Beach, Florida. Photo 2: Official White House Photo by Pete Souza. Caption: President Barack Obama and Vice President Joe Biden, along with with members of the national security team, receive an update on the mission against Osama bin Laden in the Situation Room of the White House, May 1, 2011. Please note: a classified document seen in this photograph has been obscured. 

Participants – Photo 1: Left to right: Joe Hagin, White House, Jared Kushner, White House, Steve Mnuchin, treasury, Wilbur Ross, commerce, Sean Spicer, White House, Rex Tillerson, state, Steve Bannon, White House, Stephen Miller, White House, Michael Anton, national security, Diana Powell, deputy national security advisor, Gary Cohen, economics, HR McMaster, national security advisor, Reince Preibus, White House.

Participants – Photo 2: Left to right: Joe Biden, President ObamaMarshall B. Webb, United States Air Force major general. Assistant Commanding General of the Joint Special Operations Command. Mike Mullen (standing, wearing a tie), Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff and the principal military advisor to the president, Tom Donilon (standing, arms folded) National Security Advisor Bill Daley (standing, with jacket) White House Chief of Staff, Denis McDonough (seated) Deputy National Security Advisor, Tony Blinken (standing, peering over Daley’s shoulder) national security adviser to Joe Biden, Hillary Clinton, Audrey Tomason (standing, furthest in back), director for counterterrorism, John Brennan (standing, wearing gray) Homeland Security Advisor, James Clapper (standing, wearing tie) Director of National Intelligence, Robert Gates (seated) Secretary of Defense.

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