Millions and millions of photographs have been taken of American presidents.
But none like this.
The mug shot of Donald Trump instantly became one of the most iconic images of anyone who served as commander in chief.
Inmate No. P01135809 stares out of the booking photo, his face like stone. It’s impossible to know what Trump is feeling. But the image, taken after his motorcade drove into the Fulton County Jail, does not radiate his trademark bravado. His eyes bore into you. And the seal of the Fulton County Sheriff’s Office in a top corner is a reminder that Trump, for all his former power, is beholden to a process where he cannot control his own fate.
Trump’s mug shot – stark in its simplicity in a way that must surely grate for an ex-reality star for whom image is everything – is a metaphor for an election in which the potential Republican nominee and possible next president is facing 91 criminal charges across four cases. Trump denies all wrongdoing and is innocent until proven guilty in all cases, including in the racketeering accusations in Georgia related to his bid to overturn the 2020 election.
But in some ways, the mug shot, taken after he surrendered to the authorities on Thursday, represents the inevitable culmination of a life that has stretched and buckled the constraints around the presidency and frequently strained the law. More broadly, for a man who built his legend through paparazzi snaps in the New York gossip columns and who prizes Time magazines bearing his face, the Georgia mug shot, for all its indignity, represents yet another new frontier of notoriety. But for a nation still entangled in recriminations and fury whipped up by Trump, the photograph – which flashed immediately around the world – represents a special kind of tragedy.
For those who revile Trump for his autocratic instincts, demagoguery, vulgarity and self-obsession, the mug shot may offer feelings of vindication. For the millions of Trump supporters who believe he is a victim of persecution, it will enshrine his status as a living political martyr on which his bid to regain the White House is rooted. While Trump’s team said he wanted to look defiant, the ex-president’s booking photo is likely to polarize Americans as much as his politics.
The picture also begs a question. Why does the world’s most famous man, always under the sharp-suited gaze of Secret Service agents and who can’t even leave his luxury homes without a motorcade, need a mug shot? It’s not like he’s suddenly going to disappear – he flies around in a personal airliner emblazoned with the word “Trump.” He could travel anywhere on Earth and be instantly recognized. The official explanation for the photo seems to be that Trump, despite his former power and fame, should be treated under the law just like anyone else. If a man who once had the power to destroy the world with a nuclear arsenal gets a mug shot just like any other alleged criminal in Georgia, then justice really is equal for all.
But even if the national interest is truly served by multiple indictments of a former president, could the humiliation now being piled on backfire? Furthermore, Trump has weaponized every aspect of his legal struggle to super charge the cult of victimization and vengeance that drives his political appeal. Trump quickly posted his booking photo to his Truth Social network, and used it to return to X, the platform formerly known as Twitter. His campaign is already plastering it everywhere – likely to help raise the cash he’s spending on his defense and turning his shame into a new kind of power, in another affront to the justice system.
For any other politician, a mug shot would be the end. For Trump, it’s a springboard. After all, he was processed in the jail in Atlanta only 24 hours after most of his rivals for the GOP nomination raised their hands in a presidential debate in Wisconsin to say they’d support him if he becomes the GOP nominee.
Photos of those who served as president – often choreographed by administration spin masters for propaganda purposes – come to define eras. Even though he’s no longer in office, Trump’s mug shot will now enter the historic record of the select band of those who’ve called the White House home. This includes images of John Kennedy and his kids in the Oval Office that encapsulated a youthful generation’s rise to the pinnacle of power. A photo of Lyndon Johnson being sworn in as president on Air Force One in Dallas in November 1963 beside newly widowed first lady Jacqueline Kennedy, who still wore a suit stained by her assassinated husband’s blood, was designed specifically to show continuity of government at a moment of horror. Like all great photographs, it captures a decisive moment and retains the power to haunt.
President Richard Nixon’s two-handed victory salute from the doors of his helicopter couldn’t hide the stigma of his defeated final exit from the White House after he resigned over Watergate. In September 2001, President George W. Bush stood on a pile of charred wreckage at Ground Zero in New York with a bullhorn, catalyzing a wounded nation’s shift from grief to resolve after its worst ever terror attack. Four years later, a picture of him staring down from the presidential plane at the drowned Gulf Coast epitomized his negligent leadership after Hurricane Katrina. For future generations, such images define a chapter of national lore when all the details have blurred together.
The same will be true of Trump’s mug shot.
A face the whole world knows frozen in ignominy. A harrowing American epoch captured in the click of a shutter.