By Vinessa Friedman
As soon as it was taken, it became the de facto picture of the year. A historic image that will be seared into the public record and referred to for perpetuity — the first mug shot of an American president, taken by the Fulton County, Ga., Sheriff’s Office after Donald J. Trump’s fourth indictment. Though because it is also the only mug shot, it may be representative of all of the charges.
As such, it is also a symbol of either equality under the law or the abuse of it — the ultimate memento of a norm-shattering presidency and this social-media-obsessed, factionalized age.
“It’s dramatically unprecedented,” said Sean Wilentz, a professor of American history at Princeton University. “Of all the millions, maybe billions of photos taken of Donald Trump, this could stand as the most famous. Or notorious.” It is possible, he added, that in the future the mug shot will seem the ultimate bookend to a political arc in the United States that began decades ago, with Richard Nixon’s “I am not a crook.”
In the photo, Mr. Trump is posed against a plain gray backdrop, just like the 11 of his fellow defendants whose mug shots were taken before him, including Mark Meadows, Sidney Powell and Rudolph Giuliani.
As with them, his face is lit from above by a blinding white flash that hits his ash blond hair like a spotlight. As usual, he is dressed in the colors of the American flag: navy suit, white shirt, bright red tie — though his typical flag lapel pin is either absent or invisible in the picture. He glowers out from beneath his brows, unsmiling, eyes rendered oddly bloodshot, brow furrowed, chin tucked in, as if he is about to head-butt the camera. The image is stark, shorn of the flags and fancy that have been Mr. Trump’s preferred framings for photo ops at Mar-a-Lago or Trump Tower, or during his term in office, and that communicate power and the gilded glow of success.
Was the photo necessary? In the last few years, a number of police departments and newsrooms around the country have been rethinking the practice of releasing mug shots to the public, viewing them as prejudicial at a time when a subject has not yet been proved guilty. The prosecutors in the other three Trump cases, both state and federal, have refrained from taking mug shots of Mr. Trump at all, given that he is one of the most recognizable people in the world and not considered a flight risk. Georgia laws, however, dictate that a mug shot be taken for a felony offense, and the Georgia sheriff in charge of booking has said that all defendants will be treated equally.
Either way, it is part of the pageantry of the moment, part of the theater of law. And Mr. Trump is a man who has always understood the power and language of theater. Of putting on a show. Of the way an image can be used for viral communication and opinion-making.
That’s part of why the “would they or wouldn’t they” discussion about mug shots resurfaced each time an indictment was handed down. In its concrete reality, the Fulton County mug shot may seem more irrevocable than anything else that has happened in the Trump cases thus far — at least until the two sides enter a courtroom. Perhaps that is why the concept alone started trending on X, the platform formerly known as Twitter, even before Mr. Trump had boarded a plane to Georgia to surrender.
While very few voters are likely to have read any of the Trump indictments in full, they will almost all definitely see the mug shot, and the former president — who posted this one on his recently reinstated feed on X, not long after it was released — cares deeply about his pictures. He always has.