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Opinion: Trump's mug shot may become his best-known portrait

This booking photo, provided by Fulton County Sheriff's Office, shows former President Donald Trump after he surrendered and was booked at the Fulton County Jail in Atlanta this week. Trump is accused by District Attorney Fani Willis of scheming to subvert the will of Georgia voters.
AP
This booking photo, provided by Fulton County Sheriff's Office, shows former President Donald Trump after he surrendered and was booked at the Fulton County Jail in Atlanta this week. Trump is accused by District Attorney Fani Willis of scheming to subvert the will of Georgia voters.

I've never seen a mugshot quite like the one of Fulton County Inmate Number P01135809. But I saw lots of mugshots taken when I was a crime reporter. The alleged perps, as they were called by police, were stood against a cinderblock wall, while a hot white light would be trained on their face.

"Face forward" the photographer would call out. You'd hear a snap and whirr, then, "Turn to the side." I don't recall ever hearing, "Please."

Many of the people having mugshots snapped seemed to know the routine. They had been "in the system," as they called the courts, and often "in the joint," or prison. I saw people booked for drug store stickups and gang fights, street solicitation, and buying and selling bags of heroin. I saw people booked for stealing televisions, or robbing liquor stores, and people booked for shooting at someone in an alleyway, or through a kitchen window.

A lot of them still seemed sweaty from running from arrest, hair in a swirl, shirts half-untucked.

Most seemed to strike a blank, dull look under the light when the shutter snapped. A few smiled. Some curled a lip and hardened their eyes, flinty and defiant. This week, we might say, Trump-like.

Police knew many of the people being booked from previous encounters. They would sometimes quip back and forth:

"Back so soon?"

"I missed you."

"Whad'ya do now?"

"Nothing."

"Surrre."

You didn't have to be a police psychiatrist to hear the bravado in that banter, on both sides.

But now and then, someone under the bright light of a mugshot would begin to tear up. It was as if the hot light on their face against the cold, white wall burst over them with a hard truth: this was serious. They were charged with a crime that might get them locked away for years, or the rest of their lives.

Even hardened cops sometimes held up their hands and said, "Give 'em a minute here."

Defendants are presumed innocent until proven otherwise. Jury trials will be held, evidence presented and questioned. But mugshots can be a great leveler in the American criminal justice system. They are visible reminders that the law applies to everyone.

Donald Trump's face has probably appeared on billions of screens, magazine covers, front pages and book jackets; snapped at rallies, parties, ceremonies and summit meetings; in TV studios, high rise offices and his gilded homes. But his best-known portrait may become the one taken this weekagainst a plain wall in the Fulton County, Georgia jail.

Copyright 2023 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Scott Simon is one of America's most admired writers and broadcasters. He is the host of Weekend Edition Saturday and is one of the hosts of NPR's morning news podcast Up First. He has reported from all fifty states, five continents, and ten wars, from El Salvador to Sarajevo to Afghanistan and Iraq. His books have chronicled character and characters, in war and peace, sports and art, tragedy and comedy.
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