Earlier in his administration, as Donald Trump launched attack after attack on the mainstream media, a series of newspaper photographs caught his attention, in a good way. The photos all appeared in the New York Times, which Trump had branded the “enemy of the American people” and declared “failing.” No matter. He was so enamored of the pictures that he asked the Times photographer who shot them, Doug Mills, for prints.
Mills had built a reputation as a prolific documenter of Trump, producing indelible images like a close-up of the president in the Cabinet Room, his hands crossed, the number “45” stitched in dark italics on his left cuff. Another Mills’ photo showed Trump and his wife, first lady Melania Trump, at an inauguration welcome concert descending the steps of the Lincoln Memorial. In another, Ivanka Trump is walking off Air Force One at Joint Base Andrews after a trip to Pittsburgh with her father, her hair lifted by a breeze as Marine One looms behind.
When the president’s prints arrived, he and Mills met for a brief exchange in the Oval Office, according to three people familiar with the meeting. And in a rare show of approbation for a member of the mainstream media, Trump personally thanked Mills for his work.
Mills has taken memorable photographs of presidents going back to Ronald Reagan. But he has found a new, perhaps surprising, admirer in Trump, who, for all of his cries of “fake news,” has repeatedly singled out one photojournalist above all others for his omnipresence and talent.
Aboard Air Force One last fall, the president peered through a tangle of arms holding voice recorders to find his favorite journalist peering at him: “There’s my genius photographer,” he said, gesturing toward Mills. At a round table during the G-7 conference in Quebec that year, Trump squeezed in between Prime Minister Justin Trudeau of Canada and German Chancellor Angela Merkel, chitchatting. Before the assembled press pool was shooed out, Mills caught Trump’s eye and, turning to Trudeau, crowed: “He’s the No. 1 photographer in the world,” adding, “Unfortunately, he works for the New York Times.” Trudeau and Merkel chuckled.
This past February, there were two White House photographers on hand at the U.S.-North Korea summit in Hanoi. But Trump was focused on Mills. Remarking on the historic nature of the event, the president called on the Times photographer to come closer and snap a shot of him and Kim Jong Un. Trump then requested that Mills send him copies of the image to be shared with the secretive state’s strongman leader. Mills told me he passed along prints to the White House press office—something he has done when asked by past administrations—and a White House official confirmed that staff delivered Mills’ pictures to Trump.
To the extent that a visual history of this unusual White House is emerging, it is Doug Mills who is capturing it. He is something of a star on social media, where journalists and casual observers marvel at how he catches fleeting, revealing moments, composed as artfully as paintings—whether Trump waving at a sea of cheering admirers in West Virginia or House Speaker Nancy Pelosi offering a seemingly sarcastic clap at the president’s State of the Union address.
Much of Mills’ work also plays with shadows, silhouettes and unique vantage points. Becky Lebowitz Hanger, a photo editor at the Times, says Mills’ intimate knowledge of Washington—its physical spaces and the people in power—helps him to narrow his attention on the moment at hand. She pointed to Mills’ overhead photo of former FBI Director James Comey testifying before a Senate committee in 2017. Mills gamed out that the most dramatic and telling visual from the event would be the spectacle itself—the size of the crowd and the sheer number of journalists looking on. “He doesn’t have to think about what the lighting is like or where the best angle is in a particular room,” Lebowitz says. “So he’s able to fully concentrate on the news, on capturing the right moment. And it allows him the space to think creatively to make surprising images from what could be quite familiar situations.”
A senior administration official gushed to me that the White House photo office is frequently “in awe” of Mills’ images.
The relationship between Mills and Trump owes something to the backgrounds of both men. Trump is obsessed with imagery and has an old-school fondness for print newspapers, each morning poring over the Times, his hometown paper whose veneration he desperately craves. “Trump is among the best politicians to appreciate visual messaging,” says Sean Spicer, his first White House press secretary.
Mills is an affable straight-shooter who brings an ageless quality to his assignments and whose No. 1 rule is to show up as often as possible—but not let the repetitive scenery sap his creativity. Sarah Huckabee Sanders, Spicer’s successor at the White House, considers Mills an “excellent photographer with tremendous talent,” noting that he “always treats everyone with respect.”
“He is a true class act,” Sanders says, “and it’s a privilege to see how he captures history and to know him as a person.”
Trump is not the first president to take a liking to Mills, who views the attention as flattering—if a bit embarrassing. “It’s awkward,” he says, with a laugh. Mills acknowledges Trump makes for a good subject, though. “I always say that President Obama was the most photogenic because you couldn’t take a bad picture of the guy. He had a great smile, great skin, great teeth, the whole dynamic of him,” Mills says. “Trump is the most iconic. You can look at any picture of him and know right away it’s him, even from afar. His hair, his coat, his hands, the size of him.”
No recent president has been as mindful as Trump of how the press captures not just what he does, but how he looks doing it. The Trump Tower executive office in New York is adorned with photos of Trump with celebrities and magazine covers he has graced. As president, he uses dark power suits and his preferred formal settings—the Oval Office, Cabinet Room and the Rose Garden—to project a picture of power, strength and even fear. “A don’t-fuck-with-me view,” as one veteran White House reporter described it. His dominant “look” is sitting scooched up in his chair, arms folded as he narrows his eyes and stares sternly ahead.
“Image is everything,” Mills says of Trump. “It drives social media. It drives his brand. It drives his base. It’s the empire of image.”
While Trump, like other presidents, has official White House photographers, the sparse public catalog of candid shots from the primary White House shooter, Shealah Craighead, doesn’t begin to approach the collection of Obama’s chief photographer, Pete Souza. Obama trusted Souza around his family, allowing him to build a massive, behind-the-scenes record of Obama’s presidency (even as the White House at turns sharply controlled real-time access for press photographers). Rather than using his own staff for that kind of intimate glimpse of his inner life, Trump seems to prefer Mills as his photographer of record in the daily pages of the Times.
Trump, who has shown little interest in controlling the daily media narrative with a single message, has opened more White House meetings to the press, more often and for much longer durations than his immediate predecessors. “Where’s the pool?” Trump will often bark, referring to the rotating group of journalists who cover him, photographers included. “We have more access to him than any president I’ve ever covered,” says Mills, who has the added benefit of the Times being the only newspaper that pays for a standing photographer spot in the travel pool.
Yet the photographic access Trump offers is almost entirely on his own terms, giving it a showtime quality that can feel impossible to pierce. The president and first lady resist harsh lighting—they have the lights dimmed wherever, whenever they can. It’s often so dark in the East Room that photographers have their own workarounds to make usable pictures, adjusting their cameras and carefully tracking Trump’s movements, knowing that everything in the shot but the president can come out blurry. Trump doesn’t mind shouting over the loud drone of Marine One as he comes and goes if it means he can take questions in the natural light outside the White House, irking reporters who can’t hear him.
The photos Craighead and other government photographers take of Trump, and that get released to the public, have sometimes had to be reviewed by the president himself, rather than the more typical review by a staffer, according to two former Trump White House aides. When fans ask for photos with Trump at his properties, or when he’s dining with friends, one of his ex-aides explains, “He’s never going to tell you no. But he will say, ‘Take it again. Or, ‘Let’s go from there.’ He’s particular about the shot.”
Trump also has on occasion peered at the cameras and laptops of press photographers, commenting on photos before they’re submitted to editors. After meeting with British Prime Minister Theresa May last summer, Trump noticed Mills and groused that a photo of his had made the president look like he had a “double chin.” Bill Shine, the former Fox News executive who served for several months as Trump’s communications honcho, would keep careful note of when outlets—often tabloids—ran images of his boss with his mouth open or looking angry.
Sometimes, Trump pushes for the angles he prefers as part of the give-and-take of a photo shoot. In one private session with a news photographer, Trump kept turning his head so as not to show the part in his hair, according to the shooter. The president asked the photographer to see a preview, then nodded in approval. During the same session, the photographer wanted to get a silhouette taken from behind as Trump looked out a window. Sensing that the president would demur, the photographer showed Trump an example of the concept. “Once he saw it, he was like, ‘OK, yeah, yeah,’” the shooter says. (That pose was one of nearly a dozen “looks” the person tried in the brief one-on-one session. No photographer I talked to said he or she had ever opted not to publish an image because Trump had expressed reservations about it.)
Mills—a wire-style shooter focused on the president’s day-to-day activities, rather than portrait shoots—doesn’t find the president to be in the least controlling, though he and others note that Trump allows photographers to spend only a few minutes in the buffer zone (below the stage) during speeches, while his predecessors opened the area for the entirety of their time at the podium. Overall, Mills says Trump’s unscripted presidency has given him a wealth of material.
In everyday settings, he is constantly looking to capture the essence of his businessman-turned-commander-in-chief subject. On a damp April morning, Mills was at the White House directing traffic, pointing some print reporters and camera people into “zones” to avoid a free-for-all during Trump’s departure from the South Lawn. There was a light rain, and Mills was planning for the unexpected. Would Trump come out in a hat? Would he stand under an umbrella? The flight to California was long enough, Mills reasoned, that Trump would have time to redo his hair if it got wet.
The rain relented, and a hatless Trump waved off a military aide who approached with an umbrella. Mills stood on a ladder, with two Sony Alpha a9s, one with a superwide 12- to 24-millimeter lens, and the other with a 70- to 200-millimeter lens. An affixed “doubler,” used to double the focal length, gave Mills a close-up view. He was merely practicing, looking at different exposures and trying different focuses. He knows Trump’s repetitive mannerisms down to a few seconds—he can tell when the president is going to stop talking; when he’s moving on to another topic; when he’ll answer a question and when he will brush it aside. Mills hoisted one camera on a monopod—10 to 12 feet up—and snapped a bird’s-eye-view, a signature look for him.
The “practice” photo—peering down on a scrum of reporters and boom mics fanned out before the president, his hands gesturing—drew thousands of “likes” on Instagram.
A photojournalist covering the White House told me if there’s a hierarchy of media following the president, photographers are proudly in the working class. They don’t get as much glory as reporters—certainly not the ones on TV. But their quiet, constant presence is often an advantage. Presidents, in general, don’t see still photographers as partisan, or as threats.
George H.W. Bush affectionately called his pack of shooters the “photo dogs” and hosted White House barbecues for them. His son, George W., liked to pick out photographers and make fun of their outfits. During his first campaign, recalls one of his former special assistants, Greg Jenkins, the candidate walked to the back of the plane to hang out with the photographers, so long as they agreed not to put their cameras in his face. They swilled blended margaritas under a disco ball while Bush bantered and nursed a nonalcoholic beer, Jenkins recalls.
Mills was along for the ride with not just the Bushes, but Reagan, Bill Clinton and Obama. Before joining the Times in 2002, he worked for newspapers in Virginia and United Press International, then spent 15 years on the White House beat as chief photographer for the Associated Press in Washington. (Along the way, he won two Pulitzer Prizes, while also sneaking away from the capital to shoot sports events like the Olympics and the Super Bowl.)
Early on, he developed a knack for earning the trust of presidents by putting them at ease. One Christmas Eve, when he was just a rookie, Mills sat alone in the White House briefing room and grew curious after a Secret Service agent dropped in. Curiosity turned to shock when, following close behind the agent, was President Reagan. “What are you doing here?” the president asked the young photographer. They shook hands and went out on the colonnade for a walk toward the residence. Mills politely declined when Reagan offered for him to go up and see the first lady.
Mills was in the same briefing room chair a few years later when the door opened on a Friday afternoon, and in walked George H.W. Bush. “Hey Doug, you know how to play horseshoes?” Bush asked. Mills fetched another photographer and joined the president at his horseshoe pit outside the Oval. Mills and Bush would later go running together in Kennebunkport, Maine, and Mills became a regular in the president’s horseshoe game. Once, while they were playing at the White House, first lady Barbara Bush walked up wearing a robe over her swimsuit. “Good thing you don’t have your camera with you today,” Mills recalls her teasing. “We joked. Then she jumped in the pool and started swimming.”
Mills is not afraid to push the limits of his cloistered environments. He is believed to be the first photographer to employ a remote camera (a staple of sports photography) to shoot presidents, as he did to capture an image of George W. Bush and Russian President Vladimir Putin, eyes locked, on a stroll at a 2001 meeting in Slovenia—an angle nobody else got. In 2012, Mills negotiated with the White House and Souza for permission to place his remote camera in an Oval Office mantelpiece fern. The result was a page one Times photo taken from behind Obama and British Prime Minister David Cameron, with a unique fish-eye effect.
A longtime member of the White House Correspondents’ Association, Mills has been at the center of countless standoffs over press access issues. During the Obama years, when the administration closed off access to journalists and released its own images online, Mills and others worked to improve the situation. He has also been tough on the Trump administration when it has limited photographers’ presence, particularly at major foreign events. To this day, he spends hours every week helping journalists and officials coordinate access and calendars.
“I’ve often thought to myself I should have a tattoo on my arm that whenever I’m in a position where I don’t know what to do,” says Andrew Harnik, an AP photographer in Washington, “I could look down and it would say, ‘What Would Doug Do?’”
Mills’ habit of always showing up has landed him scoops of historic proportion. On September, 11, 2001, he took the now-famous photo of chief of staff Andy Card whispering in George W. Bush’s ear during a visit to an elementary school in Florida, informing the president that America was under attack. Mills was the only still photojournalist with Bush on his plane throughout the day. A decade later, Mills was walking through the White House gate on an eerily quiet Sunday when he ran into a White House official he knew. “What the hell is going on?” Mills asked. “OBL,” the person whispered—Osama bin Laden had just been killed. Mills called Peter Baker, the Times’ chief White House correspondent, who with colleagues went to work confirming the news.
Mills continues to gather tidbits about the current administration. He gets along with Trump, who is less chummy with his press corps than previous presidents, but there are no horseshoe games or margaritas, just occasional cross talk. Mostly, it is Mills’ iconic imagery that has captivated the president—and the public. A longtime former Mills colleague likes to say you can judge a picture by whether, decades from now, a news reporter could use it to write a 1,000-word article. Many such photos of the Trump era in Washington are likely to have Mills’ name under them.
“He is in some ways the best White House correspondent we have—even though he doesn’t write—because he is just as intuitive and insightful about [presidents],” Baker told me. “He knows with great and exacting detail how each president responds to the visuals of their presidency, what matters to them. And he noticed things about them that the reporters miss.
“We don’t capture all the images he sees.”
Article originally published on POLITICO Magazine