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Photos explain how Trump dodges sexual accusers while others fall

Photo by Jabin Botsford/The Washington Post via Getty Images
Members of the University of Maryland women’s lacrosse team react to something President Donald Trump said after posing for photographs at the White House on Nov. 17, 2017.
Published Last updated This article is more than 2 years old.

Donald Trump gets away with things that would destroy any other politician or public figure.

Take his November 17 photo-op above: with an unreported remark, Trump appears to shock the championship University of Maryland women’s lacrosse team (Donald strikes again!). Only the politician who took over the White House with 17 sexual assault allegations under his belt could appear with his mouth open and his eyes closed, seeming to scandalize a whole group women at such a delicate moment in US sexual politics.

That particular photo occurred at the same time that Alabama’s failed GOP senate candidate Roy Moore had been accused of sexual relations with a female minor. It was published against a background of sexual harassment and abuse scandals that have rocked Hollywood and the media, and Washington, DC. And it perfectly captured two questions: What role does photography play in the current cultural accounting? And what does this picture say when it comes to Trump?

The Leading Photograph

Visuals have enormous impact in tying sexual harassment to public personalities. US senator Al Franken’s unwanted sexual advances would not have had nearly the impact without that one suggestive photograph. In the highest profile cases, the right photo does more than back up testimonials and other documentary evidence; it imprints an image of guilt in the public mind.

Photo by © Wally McNamee/Corbis via Getty Images
Soviet premier Leonid Brezhnev casts an admiring gaze at film actress Jill St. John at a pool party given by Richard Nixon.

Former Washington photographer Wally McNamee captured one of the most famous stolen leers in politics in 1973: Leonid Brezhnev ogling actress Jill St. John at a pool party hosted by Richard Nixon.

Public condemnation was the result of video circulated of Bill Clinton and Monica Lewinsky embracing at a campaign fundraiser in Washington in 1996.

Monica Lewinsky embraces President Clinton as he greeted well-wishers at a White House lawn party in Washington on Nov. 6, 1996.

Sexting photos of former New York congressman Anthony Weiner also produced a damning effect. And the same goes for more recent compromising photos of Congressmen Joe Barton and Blake Farenthold, the actual images I’ll spare you here.

AP Photo/
This undated photo taken from the website, purports to show Rep. Anthony Weiner, D-N.Y., shirtless.

The United States’ deep political polarization puts an even greater premium on the toxic photograph.

Reuters/Lucas Jackson
Beverly Young Nelson, who claimed that Alabama senate candidate Roy Moore sexually harassed her when she was 16, sits behind a signature by Roy Moore in her 1977 yearbook.

In the case of Roy Moore, images of a yearbook autograph lent credence to charges that he had sexual relations with a 14-year-old girl.

A screenshot of an NBC News broadcast.

Although diptychs are typically a default and generally weak editorial device, in Moore’s case it powerfully visualized the age gap between him and his accuser (if not entirely fair for showing Moore at present day, rather than at 32.)

Donald Trump’s accusations, in pictures

There is a similar profusion of titillating photos of Donald Trump, himself accused of sexual harassment by many women. So far, though, the president has not seemed susceptible to the “Monday morning” accountability that has singed others.

Reuters/Gary Cameron
Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump (R) autographs the chest of a woman at his campaign rally in Manassas, Virginia on Dec. 2, 2015.

Take this photo from the campaign trail in December, 2015, where a woman, an active accomplice, lets Trump leave his signature just above her breast. Perhaps it is precisely because there are so many visual examples of strange behavior that he is insulated from the most damning ones.

Of course, the most provocative imagery of Trump so far is the Access Hollywood video. It shows Trump and Billy Bush with actress Arianne Zucker, and was published by The Washington Post on Oct. 7, 2016. The visual accompaniment to his verbal admission of compulsive sexual advances, including forceful kissing and “pussy grabbing,” this tape spawned dozens of screenshots.

The Washington Post/Getty Images
In this 2005 frame from video, Donald Trump (center) prepares for an appearance on ‘Days of Our Lives’ with actress Arianne Zucker, accompanied to the set by Access Hollywood host Billy Bush (left).

Paired with Trump’s comments on the bus, not to mention some suggestive comments and flirting with Zucker in person, this material provides the most convincing support, to date, of Trump’s nature. But the Access Hollywood tape never prompted a serious backlash—the tweet below was posted seven days after the tape was published.

Shortly thereafter, Jessica Drake and the ubiquitous Gloria Allred actually manage to produce a photo of the accuser.

Reuters/Kevork Djansezian
Lawyer Gloria Allred holds a photograph of Jessica Drake and Donald Trump, after she spoke to reporters about allegations of sexual misconduct against Trump on Oct. 22, 2016.

Suggestive as it is, the photo taken before Trump allegedly kissed Drake without asking and persisted in propositioning her for sex, this photo also failed to capture people’s imagination.

Although he’s cleaned up his act, Trump has continued to air opinions on women’s bodies as president. Take the comments he made in France about Brigitte Macron’s body on July 14, 2017. Standing in Paris’ Hôtel National des Invalides, Trump was filmed looking Mrs. Macron up and down. He then told her “You’re in such good shape,” then he turned to the French president and repeated: “She’s in such good physical shape.” Turning and looking at Mrs. Macron one more time, Trump nodded with approval and added: Beautiful.” At that point, Mrs. Macron appeared to step back and take Melania’s arm.

Trump’s moral positioning

Nevertheless, Trump has managed to defy scrutiny of the harassment and abuse allegation. In addition to challenging the legitimacy of the Access Hollywood recording, he tends to repackage himself as his complete moral opposite.

Here, reinforcing the adage that the best defense is a good offense, Trump uses Twitter and the Franken photograph to call the kettle black. In this case, Trump leverages a photograph with some word play to cast Franken as a monster. His invocation of “a thousand words” emphasizes how suggestive a photo can be.

A particularly audacious example of Trump’s moral flipping (and, one might argue, his gift for misdirection), is this photo, taken the same day as the image in which he proved so flirtatious with the young women from the University of Maryland.

Reuters/Joshua Roberts
U.S. President Donald Trump prays with the Oklahoma Women’s Softball women team as he greets members of Championship NCAA teams at the White House on Nov. 17, 2017.

Here, the onetime playboy is the picture of piety in bowing his head with the championship women’s Oklahoma University softball team.

It remains to be seen if Trump, the visual Houdini, continues to escape the larger picture of predation this prayerfully.

Follow Michael on Twitter at @ReadingthePix.

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