Decoding the Trump 'war room' photograph

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Trump and teamImage source, White House/BBC
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Back row from left: Deputy chief of staff Joe Hagin, senior adviser Jared Kushner, Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin, Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross, Sean Spicer, President Trump, Secretary of State Rex Tillerson, chief strategist Steve Bannon, senior adviser Stephen Miller, national security official Michael Anton. Front from left: Chief of staff Reince Priebus, national security adviser HR McMaster, chief economic adviser Gary Cohn, deputy national security adviser Dina Powell

On Friday morning Sean Spicer tweeted a photograph of Donald Trump and some of his advisers receiving a top secret briefing in Florida on the results of the US missile strike against a Syrian government airfield.

If a picture is worth a thousand words, what does this one tell us?

Keeping in mind that the image presented is the one the White House wants to convey, the photograph still invites a number of observations and, perhaps, conclusions.

Here are five of them.

What are they looking at?

Let's get to the most obvious question first. What is the president watching so intently?

According to Spicer's tweet, the people present are looking at a screen showing Vice-President Mike Pence, Defence Secretary James Mattis and Joseph Dunford, chair of the Joint Chiefs of Staff.

The trio are part of the national security team at the White House tasked with explaining the results of the strike devised to punish the Syrian government for using chemical weapons on its own population.

That's Spicer, by the way, tucked into the back left corner of the room.

It's not the Situation Room

Image source, White House
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The picture of Obama and team in 2011 was much dissected

A quick glance at the Trump team photo instantly recalls what was perhaps the most memorable modern "war room" image, from 2011, when President Barack Obama and his national security team clustered around a monitor to watch the raid to kill Osama Bin Laden unfold.

A key difference, of course, is that the Obama photo was taken in the White House Situation Room. Trump and his team gathered in a nondescript location at his Mar-a-Lago private club that has been converted into a Scif - a "sensitive compartmented information facility" - where the president and his aides can conduct secure communications.

Trump and his team are seated in gold-painted chairs and the hint of an ornamental rug can be seen beneath their feet.

Given that Mr Trump has spent most of his weekends at his Mar-a-Lago estate, this room - or one like it - will likely be the scene of more than a few dramatic events during his presidency.

Kushner at top table, not Bannon

Image source, White House
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Jared Kushner (circled, left) has a place at the top table, unlike Steve Bannon

One of the more noteworthy stories earlier in the week, before the Syrian strike blew the news cycle out of the water, was the ongoing feud between presidential son-in-law Jared Kushner and Trump nationalist consigliere Steve Bannon. It seemed Kushner was gaining the upper hand, rapidly expanding his policy portfolio, while Bannon was on the outs - booted from his permanent seat on the National Security Council.

Both men were in the room Thursday night, although the seating arrangement was telling. Kushner was front and centre at the table, casting what seems to be a cold gaze in the general direction of Bannon, who was a lamp away from being pushed up against a wall. (Stephen Miller, one of Bannon's closest White House allies, is also barely visible, seated to Bannon's left.)

Economic team tag-along

There's something else interesting about the seating arrangement in this photograph. On the president's left is his Secretary of State, Rex Tillerson. On his right? Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross and Treasury Secretary Steve Mnuchin - not the kind of Cabinet officials one would expect to see prominently featured in a national security briefing.

Part of the explanation could be that Mr Trump's Mar-a-Lago travel team was heavily stacked with economic advisers for his meetings with Chinese President Xi Jinping. Gary Cohn, director of the National Economic Council, is seated along the wall on the right. Perhaps they felt comfortable tagging along with the president to learn the results of the missile strike.

It's probably safe to say, however, that a commerce secretary, usually a low man on the cabinet totem pole, has never before had such prominent real estate during a key national security meeting.

The woman in the room

Image source, White House
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Dina Powell has risen to a place at the heart of the Trump team

During that fateful 2011 raid on Bin Laden's compound, one woman - Secretary of State Hillary Clinton - was prominently featured, her hand to her mouth in apparent concern (or, she has since said, a result of seasonal allergies). Another woman, director of counterterrorism Audrey Tomason, is also visible.

There's only one woman among the 15 in the Trump photograph, US Deputy National Security Adviser for Strategy Dina Powell.

Ms Powell was an adviser to Ivanka Trump during the presidential transition and originally served as the president's senior adviser for entrepreneurship, economic growth and the empowerment of women. Like Gary Cohn, she also is a former high-ranking officer in the investment bank Goldman Sachs.

All told, the photograph contains six men who can best be described as White House political/staff advisers, four national security or foreign affairs officials, three members of the president's economics team and a military attache.

Oh, and the president. He's there, too.

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