Trump’s body language speaks volumes
Correction: The Associated Press reported erroneously that Ron Dermer was President Donald Trump’s ambassador to Israel. Dermer is Israel’s ambassador to the United States.
Taormina, Italy — The alpha-male handshake. The deadpan reaction from NATO leaders. The presidential push to the front of the pack.
Even if Donald Trump hasn’t done a lot of public speaking during his big trip abroad, the body language of the president and those around him has spoken volumes.
Day after day, with no presidential press conferences on the schedule, Trump watchers have instead parsed the president’s movements, and taken away messages that are at times painfully obvious, at times puzzling.
Put it all together, though, and the sense emerges of a president aggressively, if somewhat awkwardly, trying to assert himself on the world stage — with mixed success depending on his audience.
“Throughout the trip he looked uncomfortable and isolated, others looked surprised or distant,” presidential historian Julian Zelizer of Princeton wrote in an email. “The looks capture how much of the international community is dealing with the unorthodox president who has done little to show he cares about the role of the U.S. overseas.”
There was certainly any number of routine and friendly interactions between Trump and world leaders.
But there was no mistaking the cool reception of NATO leaders who stood by with stone faces on Thursday as Trump lectured U.S. allies about the need to spend more on defense. No, heads were not bobbing as Trump intoned that he had been “very, very direct” with members of the NATO alliance in saying at they “must finally contribute their fair share.”
That came on the heels of a straight-faced greeting from the pontiff. In a photo that quickly went viral, Pope Francis posed next to the president with a dour look while Trump grinned. Adding to the dissonant image, Trump’s wife, Melania, and daughter, Ivanka, stood next to the president, silently staring off into the distance, their somber expressions heightened by their all black outfits.
Back in Brussels, after the outdoor NATO ceremony ended, as the leaders headed to their next event, most chatted and mingled, but Trump walked alone. It was a stark contrast to the way world leaders once maneuvered to get in the camera angle with Barack Obama when he was the new president on the block.
The scene repeated itself in Italy at the G-7 summit on Friday. After the “family photo” group shot, the other leaders convivially walked down the narrow Sicilian streets to their luncheon. Trump hung back and, minutes later, opted instead to ride in a golf cart. Later, a number of the leaders surrounded Trump, some laughing as they listened.
At the NATO group shot on Thursday Trump’s move to get to the front of the pack again caused double-takes.
The president pushed himself past Montenegro’s prime minister, Dusko Markovic, to get to the front of the group as the NATO leaders walked inside the alliance’s new headquarters building.
Markovic gave a tense smile, and later called it a “harmless situation.”
But plenty of people in the Balkans were not amused.
“It seems Donald Trump did not want that anyone overshadows his presence at the summit,” said the Montenegro newspaper Vijesti.
Asked about the incident, White House press secretary Sean Spicer said he hadn’t seen the encounter but noted that places were assigned for the group photo.
Earlier, Trump and new French President Emmanuel Macron had engaged in a power hand shake that came across as a meeting of alpha males when they met for the first time over lunch at the U.S. ambassador’s residence in Brussels.
After some friendly chatter, the two gripped each other’s hands so tightly before the cameras that their jaws seemed to clench. It looked like Trump was ready to pull away first but Macron wasn’t quite ready to disengage.
“They’re presenting themselves as equals,” said body language expert Lillian Glass. “They’re both alphas.”
A different kind of hand-clasping — or lack thereof — also sparked chatter during the trip.
Two days in a row, the president and first lady Melania Trump failed to connect when Trump reached out to grab his wife’s hand — interactions that were replayed in slow-motion and endlessly dissected online.
At a red-carpet welcome in Israel, Trump reached out to grab his wife’s hand but she appeared to slap his hand away. A day later, in Rome, Trump seemed to reach for the first lady’s hand just as she reached up to brush her hair aside. On Thursday, the two did hold hands as they made their way down the stairs of Air Force One on another stop in their itinerary.
Glass said the interactions left people wondering: “What is that going on in that relationship?”
There was no questioning Trump’s friendly mojo with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu — the two embraced repeatedly while Trump was in Israel, in a telling contrast to the strained relationship the Israeli leader had with Obama.
Netanyahu even tried to intervene when a politician in his Likud party with a reputation for inappropriate antics tried to take a selfie of the unamused-looking president by attempting to swat away Oren Hazan’s arm.
For diplomats, body language can be especially important.
Israel's ambassador to the U.S., Ron Dermer, is probably wishing he’d had a better poker face during the president’s Jerusalem stop.
When Trump told an Israeli delegation that he had just gotten back from the Middle East — which Jerusalem is clearly part of — Dermer instinctively reacted to the flub by putting his palm to his forehead.