'A little too close for comfort': Why did the National Archives disappear this Trump photo?
Courtesy of the National Archives and Records Administration

Staffers at a subdivision of the National Archives and Records Administration, a federal agency Donald Trump has recently assailed as “a radical left troublemaking organization,” went out of their way to save the former president from embarrassment by making a last-minute substitution in a photo spread for an official publication commemorating his presidency.

Emails exclusively obtained by Raw Story through a Freedom of Information Act request show that one staffer flagged a photo that was slated for inclusion in an official presidential papers volume because “Trump’s mouth is a little too close for comfort to the child’s mouth.”

The photo, which was taken by White House photographer Andrea Hanks during Trump’s visit to Houston in September 2017 following Hurricane Harvey, shows the former president lifting up a young African-American girl so that their faces are cheek to cheek. Trump’s lips are pursed, suggesting he is kissing her, while the girl is turning away with a look of mild discomfort.

The image was originally published on the White House Flickr account as a “photo of the day.” The account is now maintained by the National Archives and Records Administration, commonly known as NARA.

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The sensitive photo was flagged by Shannon Holt, a writer and editor at the Office of the Federal Register, a sub-agency of NARA. Following Holt’s prompt, Kimberly Tilliman, the chief of presidential and legislative publications, asked Joshua Liberatore, a senior writer and editor, to make a substitution, the emails show.

“Thanks for the opportunity to review,” Tilliman wrote in an email on April 16, 2021. “The resolution looks great! Your selection captures the tone of the year. On page 4, there is one potential risk sensitivity concerning an image with a female child subject.” Tilliman asked Liberatore to follow up with the Government Publishing Office to make the change

As a substitute, the staffers at the Office of the Federal Register chose a photo from the same Flickr account that shows the former president high-fiving a young African-American boy. The caption on the Flickr page indicates that the photo was taken at the White House on a day in December 2017 when the former president was meeting with business owners and their families.

“In compiling the Public Papers of the Presidents of the United States, Office of the Federal Register staff strive to prepare the best product that will form an official publication,” Katerina Horska, the director of legal and policy affairs at the Office of the Federal Register, said in an email to Raw Story. “Decisions regarding which photos are selected from the portfolio supplied by the White House Photo Office are made in accordance with that goal in mind.”

The Office of the Federal Register has been publishing the Public Papers of the Presidents since 1957, and follows a charge from the National Historical Publications Commission, according to the agency website, to produce “an official series in which the presidential writings, addresses, and remarks of a public nature could be made available.” Each of the Public Papers volumes also includes a portfolio of photos selected from White House Photo Office files and a forward signed by the president.

Horska declined to answer additional questions about why the original photo was considered a “risk sensitivity.”

Comment from Trump could not be obtained for this story despite requests made to the office of the former president or his 2024 presidential election campaign.

The photo of Trump pulled from the presidential papers volume is reminiscent of images of Joe Biden interacting with women and girls that have exposed the current president to criticism that he is inappropriately touchy, while building a foundation for false claims of pedophilia promoted by conspiracy theorists.

A video capturing an awkward interaction between then-Vice President Biden and the 13-year-old daughter of Sen. Chris Coons went viral in 2015.Courtesy C-SPAN

A clip of then-Vice President Biden posing for a photo during a reenactment of Sen. Chris Coons’ (D-DE) oath of office in January 2015 went viral due to the awkward scene of Biden whispering something to the senator’s 13-year-old daughter and then attempting to plant a kiss on her head as she moved away. Responding to a question from Fox News Sunday host Chris Wallace about whether his daughter thought Biden was “creepy,” Sen. Coons said that the vice president was simply offering reassurance because his own daughter had dealt with having a father in the political spotlight.

While Biden was preparing to run for president in 2018, Trump deployed “Creepy Joe” as one of his leading nicknames to degrade his political rival, after his son Donald Trump Jr. road-tested it in a tweet. As the election unfolded in the summer of 2020, the trope reinforced the false claim by the burgeoning QAnon cult that Trump was secretly battling an international cabal of pedophiles including Democratic politicians, Hollywood and other elites. The innocuous image of Biden with Coons’ daughter has become a staple of a nationwide propaganda campaign by a hate group that deposits baggies containing antisemitic and anti-LGBTQ tracts in residential neighborhoods.

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William Sturkey, an associate history professor at UNC-Chapel Hill, noted another reason the image of Trump with the girl in Houston might have prompted concern from staffers at the Office of the Federal Register about mitigating harm to the former president’s reputation.

“I think this might be a sensitivity about this particular president, who has a long history of suggesting that many young women exist for his sexual pleasure,” Sturkey told Raw Story.

“I don’t think it’s a sexual picture in any way, shape or form,” added Sturkey, who has looked at archival photos from the presidential libraries of presidents Ronald Reagan and Lyndon Johnson to conduct historical research. “But I think Trump’s own history with women creates a sensitivity. Trump has a long history of making sexual advances, bragging about his sexual advances, and bragging about having sex with a lot of young women. From the ‘Access Hollywood’ tape with Billy Bush, to the porn star, to calling his own daughter a ‘piece of ass’ on the Howard Stern Show, to Jeffrey Epstein — how far do you want to go?”

Sturkey said he thinks the staff at the Office of the Federal Register made the right call because Trump “looks better connecting with the young, black child at the White House.”

This photo of Trump high-fiving a small child at the White House in December 2017 was selected as a replacement.Courtesy National Archives and Records Administration

While Trump has been lambasting NARA in the past 12 months for its efforts to secure presidential documents after Trump’s departure from the White House, the emails show that staffers showed nothing but respect to him and took care to ensure that his official presidential papers would present him in a dignified manner.

And they show that staffers went to some trouble to replace the photo flagged as a “potential risk sensitivity,” even after making previous substitutions and grappling with a short supply of photos with adequate resolution.

“Can you indulge us with one further photo swap?” Liberatore asked John Mitrione, a visual information specialist at the Government Publishing Office, in an email on April 19, 2021. “Our supervisor is asking us to substitute the photo on page 7 with the Hurricane Harvey victims/families due to ‘risk sensitivity.’ A replacement photo — which we all feel is superior to the original — is attached and I’ve marked up the caption file with the new information (also attached). Thanks for your patience. I didn’t foresee this late change, and I appreciate that we’ve asked a lot of you already, but I agree with the advisability of the swap.”

This is not the first time staffers at the NARA, the parent agency of the Office of the Federal Register, has gone out of its way to shield Trump from embarrassment. In January 2020, the National Archives facility in Washington, D.C. issued a formal apology for altering a licensed photo of the Women’s March — held one day after Trump’s 2017 inauguration — by blurring signs held by marchers that were critical of the president. The photo was displayed in an exhibit celebrating the centenary of women winning the right to vote.

The agency initially defended the decision by saying that the alterations were made “so as not to engage in current political controversy.” But the following day, the National Archives backtracked, issuing a new statement acknowledging their mistake, adding, “We are and have always been completely committed to preserving our actual holdings, without alteration.”

NARA’s pattern of extraordinary effort to avoid offending Trump is mirrored by a recent revelation that officials with the Smithsonian Institution — an independent federal trust administered by a governing board with representatives of all three branches of government — thanked a political action committee linked to the former president for a $650,000 contribution to fund official portraits of Trump and former first lady Melania Trump.

Since Acting Archivist Debra Steidel Wall notified Trump in May 2022 that she intended to allow the FBI to review 15 boxes of documents that were returned to NARA from Mar-a-Lago, the former president has turned his fury on the agency, adding it to the amorphous federal bureaucracy that he demonizes as the “Deep State.”

Following the FBI raid on Mar-a-Lago in August 2022, Trump used Truth Social, his social media platform, to retail a series of false claims, including one that former President Obama took more than 30 million documents to Chicago after he left the White House. NARA was forced to refute Trump’s claim with a public statement clarifying that “NARA moved approximately 30 million pages of unclassified records to a NARA facility in the Chicago area where they are maintained exclusively by NARA.”

Agency officials have cultivated an image of NARA for being scrupulously nonpartisan, and by Aug. 24 Wall felt compelled to address the scrutiny brought to bear by Trump and his supporters in a letter to employees.

“NARA has received messages from the public accusing us of corruption and conspiring against the former president, or congratulating NARA for ‘bringing him down,’” Wall wrote. “Neither is accurate or welcome. For the past 30-plus years as a NARA career civil servant, I have been proud to work for a uniquely and fiercely non-political government agency, known for its integrity and its position as an ‘honest broker.’ This notion is in our establishing laws and in our very culture. I hold it dear, and I know you do, too.”

Since the FBI raid, Trump has honed his attack on NARA, describing the agency to Fox News host Sean Hannity in September 2022 as “a radical left group of people,” while suggesting without evidence that “when you send documents over there, I would say there’s a very good chance a lot of those documents will never be seen again.”

After appearing in Manhattan courtroom on April 4 for arraignment on felony charges related to a hush-money payment to porn actress Stormy Daniels, Trump complained during an address from Mar-a-Lago: “NARA, the National Archives and Records Administration, which as to this date is a radical left troublemaking organization that red flags the Constitution of the United States and the Bill of Rights as dangerous and triggering.”

Trump has woven his grievances against NARA and other federal agencies into his 2024 presidential campaign, pledging to “dismantle the deep state & reclaim our democracy.” A report in Axios last summer detailed how Trump plans to reimpose a 2020 executive order that could reclassify up to 50,000 federal workers to positions without employment protection and replace them with loyalists.

A video address on his campaign website hints at how Trump could punish officials at NARA, without specifically mentioning the agency by name, were he to return to the White House in 2025.

“First, I will immediately reissue my 2020 executive order restoring the president’s authority to remove rogue bureaucrats,” Trump confirmed in the campaign video. “And I will wield that power very aggressively.

“Second, we will clean out all of the corrupt actors in our national security and intelligence apparatus. And there are plenty of them. The departments and agencies that have been weaponized will be completely overhauled so that faceless bureaucrats will never again be able to target and persecute conservatives, Christians or the left’s political enemies, which they’re doing now at a level that nobody can believe even possible.”