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A grimace and an awkward dance: a viral photo highlights Trump's trip to Asia

Trump discovers that when you shut out photographers, they find a way to get back at you. 

(From L-R) Thailand's Prime Minister Prayut Chan-o-Cha, Vietnam's Prime Minister Nguyen Xuan Phuc, US President Donald Trump, Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte and Singapore's Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong pose for a family photo during the ASEAN-US 40th Anniversary commemorative Summit on the sideline of the 31st Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) Summit in Manila on November 13, 2017.
Manan Vatsyayana/AFP/Getty Images

President Donald Trump’s disdain for the media is legendary, but he may be regretting his decision to shut out reporters and photographers traveling with him on a recent 12-day trip to Asia.

In a tweet that went viral, New York Times photojournalist Doug Mills highlighted a bizarre moment where Trump appeared to contort both his body and face for a group photo with world leaders at the ASEAN conference on Monday. To Trump’s left was Philippines President Rodrigo Duterte, and Prime Minister Nguyen Xuan Phuc of Vietnam was on his right.

Mills was been accused by Fox News of exacting “revenge” on a president who froze out the press throughout his trip.

Earlier in the trip, Mills tweeted out an image of a black box to protest the lack of access to the president while in Vietnam for the APEC Summit.

For a photographer on assignment to express anger by tweeting a blank, black box is highly unusual. But denying official media access to major international events has real repercussions.

Just think how little we know about Trump’s interactions on this trip with Rodrigo Duterte, president of the Philippines. Human rights activists around the world had pressed Trump, in advance of this trip, to address the issue of rampant extrajudicial killings in the Philippines under Duterte’s crackdown on drug users.

But at a press conference held with Duterte Monday morning, Trump allowed his Filipino counterpart to shut down questions on human rights. In a press briefing later, reporters were told “human rights briefly came up” in the context of the war on drugs. But that was immediately contradicted by Harry Roque, a spokesperson for Duterte’s government, who said the topic of human rights was not raised.

This is no small thing. When he came into office, Duterte greenlit the Philippine National Police to kill drug users and drug sellers on the street in a Wild West-style crack down on illegal substances. Human Rights Watch estimated that by February 2017, 7,000 people had been killed extrajudicially (in other words, without due process, or any process at all). Of that number, 2,555 were killed by the Philippine National Police. The vast majority of those killed were impoverished city dwellers.

Displaying disdain or even outright malice toward reporters is not new: Trump’s relationship to journalists has been notoriously testy from day one. But when Trump denies access to those who show how he is perceived abroad, we miss crucial moments and are left unable to judge if we have been properly represented.

But with his viral tweet, Mills arguably got the last shot. That’s because it showed the extremely awkward dance Trump has been in during his nearly two weeks in Asia. And it highlights, in one strange forced smile, how uncomfortable the US president has been.