It should come as no surprise that a president who cut his teeth on reality TV would use visual props to make a point.
But when Lesley Stahl of CBS’s 60 Minutes sat down for an interview with President Trump on Tuesday, she likely didn’t expect that the Trump team saw her as a guest on a show of its own. White House press secretary Kayleigh McEnany handed Stahl a dictionary-sized book. There were a few papers clipped together on top titled “America First Healthcare Plan,” but the inside pages of that mammoth tome looked empty. (McEnany later denied they were “trying to pass off hundreds of blank pages as its healthcare policy.”)
It’s not the first time the Trump campaign has used photo ops and misleading visual props as a strategy to deflect, distract, or create the news of the day (he did it on the day he announced his candidacy way back in 2015 with that escalator ride in Trump Tower). Here are a few of the Trump campaign’s most egregious photo ops.
Who’s on first?
Dr. Anthony Fauci threw the opening pitch for the Washington Nationals and New York Yankees on July 23. On that same day, Trump, who was not asked to throw out a pitch, held some counterprogramming on the White House lawn to regain some of the limelight: playing catch with retired Yankees pitcher Mariano Rivera and some Little Leaguers. Definite presence of cameras, no presence of masks.
WELCOME BACK BASEBALL! pic.twitter.com/dhLSfNkI7L
— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) July 23, 2020
Working at Walter Reed Medical Hospital
In early October, the White House released images of Trump at Walter Reed National Medical Center in Washington, D.C., where he had been admitted following a COVID-19 diagnosis. The images showed Trump signing some documents at the end of a long table, seemingly meant to imply that he was perfectly healthy. Upon closer inspection, the pages he was signing appeared to be blank.
Following the police shooting of Jacob Blake in Kenosha, Wisconsin, and the subsequent protests, Trump visited the city to tour businesses that were damaged. The president’s team had wanted him to meet with Tom Gram, the owner of a camera shop that had been destroyed, but he refused to be a part of it. So Trump posed for cameras with the former owner instead. Gram told TMJ4 Milwaukee that the photo op was deceptive. Trump did not meet with Blake’s family during the trip.
The president rode in a motorcade outside Walter Reed after being admitted to the hospital with COVID-19, apparently looking to see and be seen. The reason for the risky press opportunity? The president was looking to make a show of good health and was craving attention, according to CNN. But for someone who claimed to understand the virus after contracting it, the move was incredibly dangerous—putting the Secret Service agents in the car at risk and once again promoting the idea that it’s okay to flout the rules.
Balcony photo op
Upon returning to the White House from Walter Reed, Trump walked out onto the balcony and, before a backdrop of flags, removed his mask despite having COVID-19. The image didn’t convey a concern for the coronavirus, or empathy for the 200,000 dead. Rather, it was a PR move that touted machismo over common sense. (One writer compared the show of power to Mussolini.)
Church as prop
The most egregious photo op was back in June, when the administration cleared peaceful protesters from a park adjacent to a D.C. church with tear gas so Trump could pose for photographers. Trump stood in front of the church, held up a Bible, and—once its use as a set piece was complete—left. Right Rev. Mariann Edgar Budde, Episcopal bishop of Washington, which oversees the church, told NPR that the Bible Trump held up “almost looked like a prop” that he had no right to use.