Trump’s Oval Office: ‘But What About the Chairs?’

One desk, one big chair, four little chairs.
Carolyn Kaster / Ap
Editor’s Note: This article previously appeared in a different format as part of The Atlantic’s Notes section, retired in 2021.

On Friday—a few hours before Donald Trump pardoned ex-sheriff Joe Arpaio, and before Hurricane Harvey made its devastating landfall on the Texas coast—I posted an item about Donald Trump’s newly redecorated Oval Office, which differed from his predecessors’ in one notable way. I asked readers if they could spot the main difference—which, for me, was the proliferation of flags beyond what most of his predecessors had displayed, especially beribboned military battle flags.

A huge amount of mail came in about another aspect of the new office, which I hadn’t noticed or mentioned. Obviously this does not “matter” remotely as much as the genuine emergencies now underway. But there was so much correspondence, and enough of it dealt with patterns of leadership and management, that I am reprinting some of it here.

(Editing note: I have shortened most of these messages, but otherwise I have left them unedited from the form in which they arrived.)

These first few are about the message of the Oval Office photos that I hadn’t mentioned:

Re your post on the Oval flags: Another detail that struck me in the pictures of the Oval was the position of the chairs near the president’s desk. Trump has four facing him, all the others have one or two on the side. I’m certain I’m reading too much into this, but: a president with no real confidents? A president who takes no counsel? A president who speaks “to” people and not “with” people.

It may very well be they aren’t always arranged that way, a striking detail for me nonetheless.

Pop culture apropos: I remember one of the final scenes ever of the West Wing being so powerful precisely because of those chairs. As I recall, the new president’s staff briefs him, they exit the Oval, and then the chief of staff, played by Bradley Whitford, takes his place in the side chair and begins to advise the president. A simple scene, but a powerful demonstration of what it means to be a counselor to a president.

To show what the reader is talking about, here’s a close-up view of the chairs at Ronald Reagan’s desk, where the real-life counterparts of staffers like Whitford’s might have sat.

Ronald Reagan’s office, via White House Historical Association. Other pre-Trump presidents had a similar arrangement of advisors’ chairs at the side of the president’s desk.

From another reader, on the same theme:

Another difference in the pictures of the offices that struck me was the arrangement of the chairs by the President’s desk.  Every other President has chairs for advisors that are adjacent to the sides of the desk, near to the President, suggesting perhaps a closer, more collaborative relationship between the President and his advisors.

President Trump has the only configuration in which these chairs are drawn back from the President and placed such that the desk is positioned fully between the President and his advisors.

The non-Trump arrangement is actually an odd, non-customary configuration to my eyes, but in the pictures you included in your article each and every President other than Trump set up the chairs that way.    


The other significant change is the number of chairs placed in front of the Resolute Desk.

The maximum in the other pictures is three,  for Eisenhower, and recent presidents seem to have had two. Trump has gone to four as a standard.

Of course, presidents had more chairs brought in when meetings got larger, but that is not the point; rather, it is that as a matter of course, Trump is *performing* in front of four chairs, and other presidents needed only two chairs for their standard meetings.

One more way Trump is fouling the presidency—making performance the core, and governance only an occasional side use of the Oval.


The most striking difference between Trump's Oval Office and every single one of the others, aside from his penchant for gold, is this: The arrangement of chairs in all of the other layouts places the president among his guests while Trump's place his guests as spectators or audience members.

No one sits next to Trump. No one sits behind Trump. All chairs are in front of the desk, facing Trump. There is a single chair pictured that, while still in front of his desk, does not point directly at him, but it looks like it’s there in the event that it needs to be pulled in front of the desk.


When you proposed we try spotting the difference in Trump’s office, the first thing I noticed was not the answer you provided. Only in the picture of Trump’s new lay out were the chairs of those with whom he is meeting, on the complete other side of his desk. Others must sit across from him and be separated by a large desk. All the other oval office photos had the meeting chairs set at the sides of the desk, or even behind the desk on the same side as the president.

This is interviewing and meeting 101. In order to convey that you are on the same level  as those with whom you are working or collaborating, you eliminate the large furniture (aka space) that physically blocks the interaction. It could be interpreted that Trump has asked for the desk to continue to separate him from others to preserve his position over them.


The other thing I noticed besides the flags was the placement of the chairs. Previous presidents had chairs surrounding their desk, whereas Trump has them placed in front of him and away from him.  I'm not sure if that's a permanent set up, but it seems like it could be a power move in his mind to put advisors in their place, whereas other presidents were confident enough to work with their advisors and acknowledge that they needed help, and not keep them at a distance.


While I agree with you about the flags, … both the quantity and layout are perhaps telling of how different this president works. With all previous images showing a couple of chairs next to the desk, indicating maybe that previous presidents worked closely with a couple advisors, this shows four chairs in front of the desk. Could that be his penchant for lording over a court? Just found the chair layout as interesting as the flags.

And just about finally for now:

Even more telling than flags is the “body language” position of the chairs near the Resolute Desk.

Notice how all other presidents have the chairs at the sides of the desk, suggesting “conversation, discussion, sharing”; Trump on the other hand has placed the chairs on the OTHER side of the desk, signifying “Who is Boss, Greater/Lesser, Grantor, Grantee, Interviewer, Applicant”—quite the opposite.

And this behavior is directed at HIS CHOSEN staff … Imagine how he treats strangers.

Finally-for-real on the instinct that might lie behind the chairs’ placement:

I have to admit I stopped looking and continued to read after I spotted what I thought was the difference: The placement of the chairs in front of the desk—rather than beside, or none at all.

There is a sense of I am the man behind the desk, I am in charge! Compared to allowing the visitor/guest/advisor a less, what I would consider, subservient position.

“I’m the President, and you’re not!!” Which is true, and until this recent interlude, I am not sure there was a president who needed to remind everyone who he is.

His self-centredness is the root of many of his problems. A basic insecurity where he must always prove himself to be the alpha male, right down to his imaginary bone spurs.

More on the flags themselves:

It’s not just the Oval Office.  Flags are popping up all over the White House.  And our Embassies when The president visits.  And multiples wherever he makes a public statement.

I suspect there is someone on the staff there who has been placed in charge of conspicuous flag display wherever the president appears.   Would be curious to have a reporter identify and interview that person.


You write: “(I can’t tell from this photo whether the other three service banners are there as well.)”

They’re there, you can see the flags of the Navy, Air Force, and Coast Guard adding gravitas to this picture [with Russian visitors].

And with a slightly different spin:

Yes, Trump might have the flags to bolster his image. However, perhaps the flags are also a way of ingratiating the military that he needs to execute his (ill-formed) policies, protect him, and because he may some day ask them to perform unexpected and undesirable actions, perhaps against other americans for example.

The flags show his support and alignment with the military and to the extent it influences troops to believe they are supported and connected with the commander in chief, it may lower barriers and potential resistance in the future.

Isn’t this why leaders in the third world developing countries wear military uniforms?


But not everyone agreed with the flag- or chair-based analytical approach. Usually angry mail comes in under pseudonyms or no name at all, as in this case:

While the photos of the Oval Office decor through the years were interesting, your pathetic left-wing bias is obvious. Your attempt to make, as we say, a “mountain out of a molehill” by trying, as usual, like others in the lamestream media, to belittle the president falls way short, as evidenced in the Comments section.

In the future, please spare us your lame, uber-left tripe.

This man used his name:

I read your article about President Trump’s having military Flags in the Oval Office and did you ever cross your mind that he is showing support for our troops yeah I served militarily 101st Airborne/Air Assault Infantry and M. F. O. Peacekeeping forces I just curious did you ever serve a day in the military or did you just wimp out and ride the coattails all those who have and are serving using us to protect your rear end so you can go back to you cushy little job berating people

As did this woman:

Maybe the President included the Military Branch Flags in his office to show his support for the troops? Something your previous messiah wouldn’t due. Always looking for the bad and trying to spin the story to the left, Im a Marine back off.

And another woman with this aperçu:

At this point, I don’t think you qualify to me as a Ralph Lauren of the White House.

These flags remind all of what this country has sacrificed and who really has done that sacrificing ... its surely not you and your convoluted article that speaks to nothing but anti-trump sentiment.

The Oval never looked better Ralph.

Your article is a nothing burger, plain and simple.

Finally, that old staple, “we won, you lost”:

I have just read this little commentary you wrote concerning your appraisal of the new decorations in the oval office. What kind of nut are you to find fault with the honoring of our armed forces? To suggest that this represents an aggressive attitude and to insinuate that this is demeaning to the office is going way to far to find something to earn a few dollars with. Why not write an article on the reasons Hillary lost—and be truthful. You folks really need to get over it. You lost.

To some readers making the “honoring the troops” argument I replied: If it were strictly about supporting people in uniform, perhaps this idea would have occurred to the likes of Dwight D. Eisenhower, who himself commanded the vast Allied forces on D-Day, or the other presidents from John F. Kennedy to George H. W. Bush who fought in World War II. Yet leaders like these thought it inappropriate to cram the Oval Office with battle flags. I have no idea whether this makes any difference in these readers’ views.

I’ll consider the Oval Office topic closed at this point, unless there is yet another subtext in the photos that no one has yet brought up. Thanks for the responses, pro and con—and Godspeed to the people of Houston dealing with the flood, the police, fire fighting, ambulance teams and regular citizens helping their neighbors cope with the emergency, the local newspaper and broadcast reporters covering the news, and those around the country offering financial support. Support will be needed for a long time.