ATLANTA — From the moment it was snapped in the Fulton County Jail on Thursday, Donald Trump's mug shot secured a place as an artifact of American history — a defiant-looking man, once one of the most powerful on Earth, now dour in a red tie and a blue suit before a drab backdrop and under the stark glow of a flashbulb.
The booking photo ricocheted across the internet, sliding into text messages, bursting across social media and appearing on fundraising appeals and T-shirts and across news sites and cable networks. One Trump adviser joked that he might buy a T-shirt company.
Trump's opponents seized with delight: There, after all the years of accusations he was a criminal and only on the fourth arrest, was proof of his prosecution in the form of a watermarked booking picture and assigned number, P01135809. The picture is sure to grist campaigns for elections to come and be reprised by Democrats who will argue it is evidence that Trump is unfit to hold office.
But there may have been no more anticipation than among the former president's allies — who quickly saw the picture not as a liability but as an asset, the kind of rallying cry that will help Trump lock up his party's support and recapture the White House.
Ford O’Connell, a Republican consultant, said the booking photo was unnecessary — Trump is one of the most photographed and recognizable people in the world — and warned it ultimately could work against those who seemed to be delighting at seeing it.
“The Democrats are likely going to regret the Trump mug shot politically,” O’Connell said. “It’s over the top.”
Trump, for his part, downplayed the significance.
“It is what it is,” he said in an interview with Newsmax later in the evening. “I took a mug shot.”
'A tale of woe'
Trump's allies, however, didn’t let the moment pass by.
And his campaign became instantly protective of it.
"If you are a campaign, PAC, scammer and you try raising money off the mugshot," a senior adviser, Chris LaCivita, wrote on X, the website formerly known as Twitter, continuing, "and you have not received prior permission …WE ARE COMING AFTER YOU you will NOT SCAM DONORS."
Craig Shirley, a presidential historian and biographer of Ronald Reagan, said Trump’s mug shot would throw gasoline on the Republican front-runner’s surging lead as he casts the latest in an unprecedented series of indictments against him as the work of an overzealous district attorney intent on carving out a political future of her own.
Trump, who came to office on a surge of populist sentiment, has repeatedly sought to present himself as the victim of a rigged justice system as the criminal charges against him pile up.
“On a political level, this only strengthens Donald Trump’s hand,” Shirley said. “The Fulton County DA represents the establishment. Joe Biden represents the establishment. Merrick Garland” — Biden’s attorney general — “represents the establishment. All of these establishment forces have been arrayed against Donald Trump, who is the epitome of the anti-establishment.”
Shirley said the image could reinforce the notion that Trump faces an unprecedented force of federal and state officials intent on keeping him from office.
“Everyone has a tale of woe about their run-ins with some form of government,” he added. “There’s no downside for Donald Trump. He’ll laugh all the way to the White House.”
Trump wasted no time using the picture to boost his campaign coffers, sharing it alongside a link to his website in a post to X — his first on the platform formerly known as Twitter since he was booted in the aftermath of the Jan. 6 attack on the Capitol — and further cementing his place in the annals of American history as a figure who has used his words and image to bridge the divide between the online and physical worlds.
Atlanta trial attorney Craig Timmons, a former federal prosecutor, said two competing trials are underway in which the defense and the prosecution will both seek to capitalize on the optics of Trump’s surrender. There’s the trial in the court of public opinion “and the trial going on in the court,” Timmons said.
“What they care about is public opinion,” he said of Trump, who was booked on 13 felony charges, and his more than a dozen co-defendants.
Timmons said that booking pictures can color the optics of a trial and that prosecutors use them to drive their legal case.
“You want to have a presentable mug shot, because you’ll often see it in the state’s closing argument,” he said. “If you have a mug shot that makes you look like a gangster, then the case is not going to go well.”
Defendants could see their faces emblazoned onscreen for the jury, pitched alongside that of the alleged criminal.
“If I was a prosecutor, I’d have Rudy’s up there, then list the charges,” he added, referring to Trump’s former attorney Rudy Giuliani.
He said one of the defendants who smiled at the camera, Jenna Ellis, a former lawyer for Trump, made the right call. “Some people look at it and think it’s flippant, but it’s smart,” Timmons said, adding, “She’s a lawyer.”
'The stakes of Donald Trump’s indictment'
Allies of Trump began sharing his mug shot online almost immediately after its release, with Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene, R-Ga., writing on X, “This is the photo that will win the 2024 Presidential election.”
Amy Kremer, who helped organize the rally near the White House on Jan. 6, 2021, digitally altered a version of her own mug shot and shared it online — even though she hasn't been charged and wasn't arrested.
An adviser to Trump, Steve Bannon, once tied the former president to theorist Marshall McLuhan who foresaw a political realm shaped more by technological and cultural abstractions than hard facts.
McLuhan’s book, “The Medium Is the Message,” published in 1967, sought to convey the idea that “a medium is not something neutral — it does something to people,” he said at the time. One year into Trump’s White House term, Bannon summarized the effect as “the first McLuhanesque presidency.”
“The digital world is more real than the physical, analog world,” Bannon said in an interview with the New York Times. “He understands that in a very visceral way.”
David Greenberg, a professor of history at Rutgers University, said Trump’s booking photograph had the power to drive a sweeping political narrative that could carry through the 2024 presidential election.
“They capture so much of the different feelings: anger, resentment, victimization, criminality — carries a lot of different meanings at once. And so they become very useful symbols in our political discourse,” Greenberg said. “It brings home in a very powerful, visceral, visual way the stakes of Donald Trump’s indictments and, simultaneously, his bid for re-election.”
Greenberg recalled an infamous image from the Watergate trial: “a checkerboard-style image of one Watergate felon after another, like on an FBI Most Wanted picture.”
“And Nixon, who was never indicted himself, he’s there with them,” Greenberg said. "It’s the idea that criminal racket was being run out of the White House.”