Pete Souza breaks down what working for Reagan and Obama taught him about Trump’s “disastrous” presidency. Plus, watch an exclusive clip from his documentary “The Way I See It.”
As soon as Pete Souza saw the photos of President Donald Trump “working” from Walter Reed hospital earlier this month, he knew something was off.
“They were obviously posed pictures,” Souza, who worked as chief White House photographer under both President Barack Obama and President Ronald Reagan, tells me by email a couple of weeks after our longer conversation below about his new documentary The Way I See It, which will premiere commercial-free on MSNBC this Friday night at 10 p.m. ET.
Aside from the seemingly blank sheet of paper Trump can be seen signing in one of the photos, released by the White House in an attempt to prove the president was hard at work, one intrepid reporter determined that another photo, in which Trump is wearing a different outfit, was taken just 10 minutes later.
Comparing them to photos he personally took of Reagan in the hospital after he was shot by a would-be assassin in 1981, Souza says, “The pictures I made of President Reagan in the hospital were authentic and unposed, unstaged photographs.”
Asked why Americans should be outraged about all of the obfuscation by the White House over the reality of Trump’s illness, Souza replies, “I’d pose that question to any of the 215,000 families that have lost a loved one from COVID.”
Souza, who spent much of his career as a photojournalist for the Chicago Tribune, strove for as much accuracy and transparency as possible during his time in the White House. As the man responsible for the iconic photo of President Obama, Vice President Joe Biden, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and others watching the Osama bin Laden raid unfold in the Situation Room, he was similarly struck by a photo of Trump looking directly into the camera during the Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi raid that he now says “for sure looks posed.”
In the new documentary, Souza points out that if the president was actually “monitoring” the raid when that 2019 photo was taken, as the White House claimed, the photographer would have been blocking the screen.
“I knew that to be successful I just had to have access to everything,” Souza says of the unique job of photographing the president. “And I think President Obama understood that and I made sure that I maintained that access throughout the eight years. It’s hard to speak to the access that my successor has, because I really don’t know. I mean, we don’t see hardly any behind-the-scenes photographs. But that doesn’t mean that they’re not being made.”
Though he was more or less unknown during his years in the Obama White House, Souza has developed an unlikely social media following in the time since, primarily thanks to the sly photos he began posting on his increasingly popular Instagram page in 2017 that attempted to contrast Trump and his predecessor. He ultimately compiled those juxtapositions into a 2018 book called Shade: A Tale of Two Presidents.
In this exclusive clip from The Way I See It, Souza talks about the first photo he put up of Obama sitting on the Resolute Desk with rich red curtains behind him. “I like these drapes better than the new ones. Don’t you think?” he captioned the post.
It was a subtle dig at the new gold curtains Trump had just hung in the Oval Office. “Pete is dropping shade with a comment on drapes,” one follower wrote.
“I have to admit, I had no idea what dropping shade meant,” Souza says in the film. “I knew what I was doing, I just didn’t know it was called dropping or throwing shade.”
That was Souza’s first tiptoe from behind the scenes into the spotlight. The new documentary, directed by Dawn Porter, is a giant leap.
“The world works in mysterious ways,” Souza tells me when I ask how he ended up in the film, explaining that he was initially approached by Oscar-winning actress Laura Dern and her producing partner Jayme Lemons about appearing in a documentary about his work. “There was a maybe two or three-month dance where they were trying to convince me to participate in this film,” he says. “And of course I had lots of questions because it would mean giving up whatever anonymity I had left. And I was somewhat reluctant to do that.”
But ultimately he says he felt like “this may be another way to tell the story I’ve been trying to tell in the last three-and-a-half years.”
How would you describe that story that you were trying to tell from when you started posting on Instagram?
Well, it’s trying to remind people that the presidency is a serious job. A person in that position must have character and compassion and leadership, be honest with us, believe in science, believe in facts, believe in intelligence. And I didn’t find that the current occupant had any of those qualities at all. And I thought that I wanted to, in my own unique way, having worked for both a Republican and a Democratic president, sound the alarm about what the presidency should be about. And I thought that I could offer some comparison.