Hero, Showman, Scoundrel: What Americans See in Trump’s Mug Shot

Photo for The Washington Post David Walter Banks
The scene Thursday outside the Fulton County jail in downtown Atlanta.

Rafael Struve was eating dinner at his parents’ home in Houston when the mug shot flashed on his cellphone.

Wow, he thought, staring at Donald Trump’s face. This is it.

“It’s one thing to anticipate it, but to actually see it,” said Struve, 31, who works in business development and is a spokesman for Texas Young Republicans. ” . . . I don’t think it bodes well for our party if we keep this as the center.”

This first booking photo of an American president – of Fulton County, Ga., Inmate No. P01135809 – is proving a Rorschach test of our political moment. If we see the world not as it is, but as we are, the same appears true for what’s shaping up to be the most divisive image of the 2024 election.

Some Americans see a criminal facing 91 charges across New York, Florida, Washington, D.C. and Georgia, a man whom the law is treating like anyone else. Others see a wrongly accused champion, the likely Republican presidential nominee facing off against a biased justice system conspiring to bench him. Still others see an experienced showman working the camera.

Fulton County authorities released the history-making visual Thursday evening after Trump turned himself in at an Atlanta jail on charges related to his effort to overturn that state’s 2020 election results. Unlike the locations of his other legal showdowns, Georgia requires a booking photo for anyone facing a felony charge. Fulton County Sheriff Pat Labat said “normal practices” would be followed.

Trump has denied wrongdoing in each case. “What has taken place here is a travesty of justice,” he told reporters afterward. “We did nothing wrong. I did nothing wrong.”

Struve, a two-time Trump voter who now supports Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis, considered the jailhouse portrait over a plate of steak with guacamole and yucca.

Trump’s scowl? Calculated, he thought – “part of the game he’s trying to play long-term, this sort of grievance politics.”

In Atlanta, Anthony Michael Kreis dismissed the image as an outdated ritual of the criminal justice system.

To Kreis, an assistant law professor at Georgia State University, mug shots have devolved from an identification tool to a vehicle for shaming. Consider the galleries of arrestees that newspapers once commonly published. Even without a conviction, such photos can haunt someone for life.

“It’s a skeevy thing we do as a society,” Kreis said.

Yet he acknowledged that it might have been just as skeevy to grant a special pass to an enormously powerful man. The mug shot has “a certain degree of symbolism,” he noted, signaling “that no person is above the law.”

Don Price, another twice-Trump voter before he stopped caring, had seen nothing. At 60, the aerospace manufacturing company owner no longer watches the news and initially missed the photo’s release. Over breakfast Friday morning at a Waffle House about 30 miles northeast of the Fulton County Jail, he called mainstream political coverage a “dramatic loop.”

“Anyone would be stupid to vote for Biden or Trump,” he said.

But perched at the counter, Price was curious: Had Trump smiled for the camera?

Not far from the former president’s Mar-a-Lago retreat in Miami, Lester Pena was hoping to see a sign that Trump would land behind bars. He’d broken the law, the Democrat thought, and led a campaign against democracy itself. The prospect of consequences was exciting.

But the mug shot all over his TikTok feed made him uneasy as he strolled through a palm-tree lined park on a break from his hospitality job in Miami Beach. He interpreted Trump’s face as a warning: Just waiting to get out of here and exact revenge.

“Like when you have a beast in a cage,” said Pena, 60.

In the southeastern Texas city of Bellville, the owner of Trump Burger looked at the harshly lit photo and saw his hero.

Eddie Hawa, a Muslim originally from Jerusalem, opened the first of his two Trump-themed fast food joints in 2016 – homages to the businessman he describes as “very smart” and an economic blessing for the United States. He serves his burgers with Trump’s name branded into the bun. His business cards are emblazoned with Trump’s face. And soon, his restaurant will start selling “Free Trump” T-shirts to customers.

The justice system, in Hawa’s view, is targeting Trump – just as Fidel Castro once did his opponents. “This is America – we are not a third-world country,” the 53-year-old Hawa said. “It’s like Cuba.”

Some 1,400 miles north, in the village of Ephraim on Wisconsin’s northeastern thumb, Monique McClean looked at her Apple watch and thought: What is that?

Without comment, her husband had texted Trump’s mug shot, which she initially mistook for some kind of illustration. “It looked like a Marvel supervillain to me,” she said.

McLean, 61, the owner of Pearl Wine Cottage on Green Bay’s shoreline, felt her mood turn gloomy when she considered the image more closely. A Democrat, she’d been horrified by the way Trump accused poll workers in Georgia of scheming against him. Two women had been forced into hiding.

“I just thought of all the lies he has told for years,” she said.

Over in Minneapolis, during her 37th birthday dinner at an Italian eatery, Kimberly Rosenfield wondered what the mug shot would say to her.

The marketing strategist and die-hard politico knew the photo could be released at any moment. Which was why her phone was on the table when the news alerts started pinging Thursday night.

“I don’t agree with Donald Trump, but he’s a skilled marketer,” said Rosenfield, who votes left. “He knows how to create a buzz.”

Trump’s team had clearly identified another fundraising opportunity, she’d noticed. His campaign immediately updated the $36 T-shirts it had been selling since his arraignment in Manhattan – sporting a fake mug shot (“NOT GUILTY”) – to add tops, coffee mugs and beer koozies featuring the real snapshot (“NEVER SURRENDER”).

Between bites of bucatini, Rosenfield analyzed the grim look on his face. It struck her as a departure from his usual swagger, and it wasn’t just the unflattering lighting. “There is some fear there,” she said. “And vulnerability, like the pressure has caught up to him.”

Gina Newell, a 45-year-old physical therapist in Santa Barbara, Calif., saw the end of something.

Was it the illusion that America had it all together?

Sure, she’s a Democrat, but she wasn’t feeling gleeful. Her first impression was that Trump looked mad – “in a facetious way, like he was making fun of it all,” she said.

Then the embarrassment crept in: “It’s not something a supposedly strong country like ours should have happen.”