For the first time in United States history, a former president has their mug shot taken and released to the public in connection to criminal charges. Donald Trump surrendered at the Fulton County Jail in Georgia last night and was booked on felony charges alleging he participated in a criminal conspiracy to illegally overturn his 2020 election loss in Georgia.

Virginia Tech political science and public relations experts alike, believe there was a calculated effort by the former president and his team in regards to how he should look in the mug shot.

“Trump’s mug shot expression tries to convey strength and defiance, likely a strategy used to rile up his base,” says Chad Hankinson, a political science expert at Virginia Tech. “The likely interpretation for them is that he is fearless, powerful, confident, and undeterred by efforts to undermine him.” 

Trump’s campaign released the photo while requesting donations. Hankinson believes he’s trying to capitalize on this to raise more campaign funds. “Overall, he views this as a win that will net him more campaign contributions and supporters, and further the narrative that he is the target of politically motivated investigations that are meant to derail his chances of regaining the presidency.”

“Former President Trump has long been said to claim that any publicity is "good" publicity,” says Virginia Tech political expert Karen Hult. “This is another historic "first" for U.S. presidents and arguably another step along the path of a collapsing constitutional republic.”

Cayce Myers, a public relations professor in the School of Communication says mug shots have become a defining visual for news coverage of arrests. 

“Often thought of as a degrading experience, mug shots frequently are thought to be unflattering and frequently present the subject as a guilty person who got caught,” says Myers. “In high profile cases there is a strategy for taking a mug shot where the person arrested attempts to send a message to the public with their picture.”

“Trump's expression in his Fulton County Jail mugshot expresses a certain disgust and contempt, which helps promote his narrative that this is an unjust, politically motivated arrest,” says Myers. “Trump's mug shot may become a defining visual for the 2024 presidential campaign, perhaps not surprisingly on both sides.”

While pundits predicted that such images would be used to undermine Trump's credibility in 2024, Myers agrees with Hankinson that it is Trump who is likely to use the visual to promote his own campaign. “His indictments have become a rallying cry and platform for his 2024 presidential campaign, and polling in the Republican primary shows that his sizable lead has not diminished despite these legal problems.”

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