I covered the 2016 presidential campaign for CNN. The last two weeks were spent with Donald Trump’s traveling circus. (It was my 12th campaign, and they all seem that way!). I spent weeks listening to crowds chanting, “Build a wall, kill them all! Lock her up! Hang the bitch!” You get the idea. It was ugly out there. On top of that, candidate Trump would single out those of us in the press at every rally, shouting, “Look at them, the crooked media!” Or, “Those cameras back here will never show this crowd,” and singling out a cameraman on the press stand, “Look at him – he doesn’t turn the camera. The only time they turn the camera is when we have a heckler, that’s the only time they show the crowd.” He was a broken record, it got old fast, but I never felt particularly threatened. The crowd, however, loved it, and especially enjoyed shouting, “CNN sucks!” at me when they saw my credential.
On election night I was in New York City in the Hilton Hotel ballroom with Trump’s supporters and the press corps to watch what most people thought would be the end of his presidential aspirations. It didn’t turn out that way, and what do you know, Donald J. Trump was going to be the 45th president of the United States of America, and I was there to document it. Some of my friends thought I knew all along that it was going to happen. “Be honest Kennerly, you normally don’t cover losers.” I will admit the day before I had a feeling that it might happen. Of course I didn’t know, and believe me, I’ve photographed my share of losers.
Flash forward two weeks. CNN asked me to photograph an exclusive sit down with the president-elect in his office at Trump Tower. They had arranged it through Jared Kushner, who already was emerging as a major power player. This picture would replace my photo of Trump on the front of their campaign book, “Unprecedented: The Election that Changed Everything.” He had agreed to the sitting because it would become the cover of a special Inaugural edition. I was already a major contributor to the inside of “Unprecedented,” and had also spent time on the Hillary Clinton campaign taking pictures.
When I arrived at the president-elect’s office, I was struck by all of the personal memorabilia he had, including a couch full of Trump bobblehead dolls, and other kitschy items. The walls were adorned with photos of him and various people, and the effect was more what I would have envisioned as the lair of the biggest car dealer in Omaha, not that of a billionaire-soon-to-be-president kind of place.
When President-elect Trump arrived, we talked a bit about having met in Los Angeles at Morton’s restaurant, a celebrity hangout at the time. It was a pleasant exchange, I gave him a little book of photos that I had taken on his campaign, minus the pictures of T-shirts threatening Hillary’s life. We were off to a good start.
I had a chair for him next to his desk, and you could see the Empire State Building out of the window behind him. It was clear he was running late, so I got right down to it. The first few frames were smiling, I thought too much, so I said, “Why don’t you give me the, ‘You’re fired look from The Apprentice?’” He obliged, but I thought it had swung too far in the other direction. I asked him to relax a bit and took a couple more. He then asked me if he could look at what I was doing, so I showed him the portraits in the back of the camera.” He seemed to like them, and said, “I look better here than in real life.” I said, “So you’re not going to fire Jared?” He said no, Jared was going to be ok, and we continued the brief shoot. Seventeen frames and two minutes later I was finished. I knew that I had nailed it, and wanted to quit while I was ahead.
Later that day Jeff Zucker, the head of CNN, picked out the photo he liked, and ran it on the cover as promised. That photo was somewhere between the big smile and the “You’re fired,” look and seemed just right. It is also the go-to picture that is used every day on the network when they do a story about the president. I am using the tough guy moment here.
Lest you think that all ended well, President-elect Trump tweeted a late-night reaction when he saw the book version. “CNN just released a book called ‘Unprecedented’ which explores the 2016 race & victory. Hope it does well but used worst cover photo of me.”
A few weeks later some people who were visiting Trump in his office before he moved to Washington reported that he had a dozen or so of the books on his desk that he was preparing to sign. I’m assuming they were face down …
David Hume Kennerly
First published on the blog of David Hume Kennerly