On Saturday evening, President Donald Trump’s personal Twitter account was updated with a video message. Trump has been at Walter Reed National Military Medical Center since Friday after contracting the coronavirus, but the video was pointed in its intent: The president is nonetheless doing well, well enough to offer up a bit of politicking and assurances that he’s confident in his recovery.
In case that point was somehow lost on observers, campaign aides like Jason Miller made it more explicitly by tweeting the video and saying “One take, from the heart, no teleprompter. Over to you, Sleepy Joe!”
The tacit message of the tweet: Even the virus can’t keep this guy down.
But Miller’s presentation of what’s shown is obviously questionable. For one thing, while he boasts that Trump didn’t need a teleprompter, the president can be seen looking down at the sheet of paper in front of him, almost certainly to consult notes about what he plans to say.
This is not a big deal, of course, and, technically, it doesn’t conflict with Miller’s representation that no teleprompter was used. But that Miller pointedly uses this as a point of contrast with former vice president Joe Biden, Trump’s opponent in the upcoming election, is ironic. After all, Trump’s campaign has repeatedly criticized Biden’s use of written notes or alleged that he was referring to notes as he gave public comments.
Then there is Miller’s claim that this was “one take” – meaning that it is presented as Trump offered it, without editing. Shortly after the video was published, a number of professional video editors noted that this probably wasn’t true; that, after Trump mentions the use of therapeutics, he appears to begin to cough – but not complete the cough.
This video wasn’t released simply as a matter of course. It followed reports earlier in the day that Trump had been in more dire condition on Friday than the White House at first let on. The New York Times reports that the revelation that Trump had been more ill than was originally suggested “infuriated” the president, prompting him to first encourage his attorney Rudy Giuliani to pass a message about his vitality to the New York Post and, later, to make a similar point publicly himself.
In other words, Trump himself wanted to show the world how healthy he was, something that wouldn’t be aided by an on-camera cough. (His doctors have publicly acknowledged that Trump has been experiencing a cough, a common symptom of COVID-19, the disease caused by the coronavirus.)
Trump’s team also released photos of him apparently working from the presidential facility at Walter Reed. In one, he’s seen in the same room and outfit as in the released video. In a second image, he’s in another room, sitting at a conference table without a jacket and with numerous folders and papers in front of him.
Here, too, there is a bit of sleight-of-hand at play. The photos give the impression that Trump was working for an extended period, that these photos capture various moments over the course of the day.
When you take a photograph with a modern camera or other device, however, there is information associated with the image that is stored in the image file itself. This includes information useful to photographers, like the type of camera that was used to capture the photo. It also includes information about the precise time at which the photos were taken.
The Associated Press has both photos on its website and includes the above metadata about when the photos were captured. The one showing Trump wearing his jacket was created at 5:25 p.m. Saturday. The one without a jacket was created at 5:35 p.m. In other words, they were created 10 minutes apart.
Those times themselves may not be precisely accurate, given that they rely on the camera’s internal clock, which could be off or out of date. But that the photos appear to have been taken in close temporal proximity and probably at the end of the day suggests that they were more likely to be the result of a photo shoot than a spontaneous effort to document a president unencumbered by illness.
Trump and his doctor have been frank in admitting that the disease he has contracted often runs an unpredictable course and that his condition over the short term is of concern. At the same time, he and his campaign want to present the president as largely unaffected by the virus and on the brink of being back to normal.
To do so, it seems, they engaged in a bit of trickery, both traditional and digital. We’d been warned so often in the months leading up to the election about “deep fakes” showing Trump or Biden engaged in some inauthentic behavior. We should also remember that Trump’s campaign itself has often shared misleading or altered digital media.