Donald Trump promised he’d do a lot — and quickly — the minute he assumed his post as US President, and one of his very first priorities was evidently to deal with the pressing issue of home décor. On day one of his new job, the former host of The Apprentice undid some changes to the Oval Office made by Barack Obama (who, for the record, waited one and a half years after his inauguration to give the Oval Office its first makeover). The room does not exactly have a fresh look now, but rather has reverted to the past in a visual transformation that underscores how yes, we are indeed entering a rather different, uncanny era.
According to pool reports, Trump, most conspicuously, switched out the drapes behind his desk from a deep crimson — a color Obama’s decorator described as “heroic” — to a gaudy gold that recalls the Versailles aesthetic he so loves to replicate. The real estate tycoon also swiftly replaced a unique rug embroidered with five quotes Obama himself had chosen (mostly comments by former US presidents) with a beige and coral one designed by former first lady Laura Bush. Even Ari Fleischer, former White House Press Secretary for George W. Bush, noted that the room now resembles its appearance under the 43rd president.
President Obama leaves the Oval Office this morning for the last time. What a great experience I’ve had the past eight years. Every photo I’ve posted to this account has been archived and locked at @petesouza44. This account (@petesouza) will now be my personal account so I hope you will continue to follow me. I expect to be very active on Instagram although I may not post that much initially as I try to take a little break, sleep late, do whatever my wife wants me to do, go the gym every day, see some concerts, watch some movies, read some books, drink some wine….you get idea.
Presidents typically select or design their own rugs, and Trump’s decision to recycle Bush’s pride and joy speaks loudly to his inability to conceive of new visuals that represent him. For someone so proud of his personal brand, you’d think he’d have a little creativity and care enough to notice that his inaugural cake resembled his predecessor’s (except it was made of Styrofoam) or that his new presidential Twitter account had used a dated banner image of an inauguration — one taken at Obama’s swearing in, rather than at his own. You’d at least think he’d put in the effort to not essentially copy parts of his inaugural address from Bane’s dialogue in The Dark Knight Rises.
The most charged — and discussed — decision Trump made, though, to scoot his office back into the Bush-era was to introduce a bust of Winston Churchill. Bush had one on a table, sculpted by Jacob Epstein, during his two terms in office. It was on loan as a gift from former Prime Minister Tony Blair to Bush and was expected to leave the room just as other artworks may during a transition. Yet, its removal had irked conservative politicians in both the US and the UK who read the act as an affront to the countries’ relationship. But there are actually two busts that left the White House, as The Washington Post explains, the second of which was also removed — and returned — simply for repairs. Obama last year shared that he had moved the restored Churchill bust outside his office and replaced it with one of Martin Luther King Jr., by African American sculptor Charles Alston. (“There are only so many tables where you can put busts — otherwise it starts looking a little cluttered” he had said in a press conference, adding that the Civil Rights leader should be seen as an appropriate replacement.)
This story of the two Churchill busts is confusing and often reported incorrectly; what matters now, though, is that Trump’s decision to immediately return the bust into the Oval Office — no, not the Bush bust — was one that concerned politics more than aesthetics: he had discussed doing so when meeting with Nigel Farage in November — and as if right on cue, the British Brexit crusader tweeted over the weekend, “Brilliant news that @realDonaldTrump has returned the Churchill bust. We’re getting back to where we need to be.” The Post noted that the British embassy bust, too, will soon go back to the White House — and that the request was made by Farage himself.
Meanwhile, news spread that the Trump administration had also ejected the King bust. The source report turned out to be false, filed by a pool reporter who accidentally missed the sculpture while in the Oval Office (and apologized profusely for his mistake, although he, of course, received a barrage of accusations of deliberately spreading “fake news”). That provoked Sean Spicer — new White House Press Secretary, advocate of “alternative facts,” and outspoken critic of Dippin’ Dots — to ironically call out “media danger” as he reassured the world that MLK is, indeed, still at home in the office. (Some may argue, though, that staying put is unfair to the activist’s legacy.)
The King bust now sits underneath a painting that has hung in the Oval Office since 1994: Norman Rockwell’s image of the Statue of Liberty’s torch, which first appeared as a Saturday Evening Post cover in 1946. While Trump has kept that work as well as Childe Hassam’s “Avenue in the Rain” (1917),” he has gotten rid of two Edward Hopper paintings carefully chosen by Obama and introduced a work by US artist Andrew Melrose titled “New York Harbor and Battery,” which has been in the White House’s collection since at least Richard Nixon’s administration. This move may be a result of the Hoppers being on loan from the Whitney Museum, but the exchange of Hopper’s contemplative “Cobb’s Barns, South Truro” and “Burly Cobb’s House, South Truro” for an 1887 seascape is telling: it represents a jump from a taste for the modern and striking to a vision of centuries-past — a mere generic picture of America rooted in tradition, with nothing to spark the imagination.
Art in the White House is known to change often over the course of one presidency, so we’ll be keeping an eye on what Trump decides to surround himself with. The most pressing question for now, perhaps, is whether or not his bathrooms will also feature golden showers. One thing’s for sure, though: the White House’s digital makeover now leaves its website filled with useless drivel and absolutely zero signs of how far we’ve progressed.
Update, 1/25: The Washington Post reported that Trump has picked a portrait of Andrew Jackson to hang in the Oval Office — a man who had an early career as a slave trader, whose populist tactics led to his presidency, and whose policies led to the Trail of Tears. The choice could not be more fitting.