White House Chief of Staff John F. Kelly, face in palm, as he listens to President Trump's speech to the U.N. General Assembly (Mary Altaffer/AP)

Some thought President Trump's chief of staff looked embarrassed — a relatively mild assessment among the tens of thousands who have passed around a photo of John F. Kelly listening to his boss address the United Nations General Assembly on Tuesday, head in hand.

A Washington Examiner editor, for example, thought Kelly “went through some sort of existential crisis” during the speech, in which Trump at one point threatened to “totally destroy North Korea.”

At the United Nations General Assembly Sept. 19, President Trump called for preservation of sovereignty and slammed leaders in North Korea, Iran, Cuba and Venezuela. Here are key moments from that speech. (Sarah Parnass/The Washington Post)

The Russian government's state news outlet, Sputnik, noted Kelly's “facepalming reaction,” which is at least technically accurate: The man hired two months ago to bring order to Trump's chaotic presidency indisputably set palm to face, regardless of what was going through his mind at the time.

And what was Kelly thinking?

We may never know — just as we don't know how Kelly really felt the last time his body language went viral, when the new chief of staff hung his head and hugged himself as Trump, standing a few feet away, equivocated to reporters about the bloody gathering of white nationalists in Charlottesville.

But just as Trump's first speech to the United Nations on Tuesday was deemed “extraordinary” by this newspaper, those fascinated by the back of Kelly's hand have made extraordinary efforts to figure out what passed through the mind behind it.

The first problem: It's unclear exactly when in the speech Kelly facepalmed.

Other photos that day show him with hand on chin, or leaning forward attentively, or checking his watch.

Some assumed Kelly must have covered his eyes during one of the most remarkable lines in Trump's speech: “The United States has great strength and patience, but if it is forced to defend itself or its allies, we will have no choice but to totally destroy North Korea.”

But that's an assumption based on nothing.

Trump's prepared, 40-some-minute-long speech ranged across topics from human rights to Cuba, and ended on a note of “harmony and friendship, not conflict and strife.”

Kelly presumably listened to every line.

On the front page of Reddit, users tried to determine the exact time of the photo by inspecting Kelly's watch. They zoomed in and came up with 10:20 a.m., which is about when Trump was speaking of destruction and calling North Korea's leader “Rocket Man” — at least according to a timestamped CNN video of the speech.

But Reddit is not exactly known for atomic-level precision. Its users infamously botched attempts to track down suspects in the Boston Marathon bombing, for example.


Kelly, hands folded, face unpalmed. (Peter Folley/European Pressphoto Agency/EFE)

Others attempted to extract the time from EXIF metadata in the image. (Many digital cameras append a timestamp, assuming the photographer sets her clock correctly.)

A reporter for the Toronto Star used data from the Associated Press, which distributed the photo, and concluded Kelly must have facepalmed several seconds before Trump threatened to destroy North Korea — just as the president was telling world leaders: “No nation on Earth has an interest in seeing this band of criminals arm itself with nuclear weapons and missiles.”

By Wednesday morning, Axios AM had labeled the reporter's detective work the “tweet du jour,” noting that Kelly's reactions to his boss “have become a fascination for photographers.”

But amateur sleuthing only gets you so far.

The photographer who took the famous image, Mary Altaffer, was unreachable Wednesday.

The Trump White House, reportedly very attentive to the optics of crowds, did not immediately get back to The Post about Kelly's comportment in the United Nations audience.

But the president's press secretary, Sarah Huckabee Sanders, was asked Wednesday about the many grim poses of Kelly.

“He seems to be with the president all the time,” said “Fox & Friends” co-host Brian Kilmeade. “He seems to either be holding his head, or showing exasperation, or staring at the ground — and people look at those photos, saying he's unhappy with the president's remarks.”

Sanders countered that the two men had “a great chemistry.”

“I would certainly not read anything into that picture,” she said. “Probably, just like the rest of us, we're tired trying to keep up with this president who's working hard every day to help America.”

The press secretary made a good point: Read meaning into a lone image at your own risk.

You might remember that early in the administration, long before Kelly's every facial tic was augured online, another photo of a man averting eyes in Trump's presence went viral.

It was of Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, apparently snubbing the president's hand in February. But as video made clear, that single still image was an aberrant frame, misrepresenting a perfectly cordial handshake between the two men.

So then, John Kelly: exhausted or existentially depressed?

Did he cover his eyes as Trump spoke of a terrible war, or something more tame?

We have only the photos to go on, for now.

Here's what Kelly looked like after the speech, for what it's worth:

None (Peter Foley/European Pressphoto Agency/EFE)

More reading:

Trump's remarks at the U.N., in 4 minutes

Why Trump’s threat to ‘totally destroy’ North Korea is extraordinary — even for him

‘Rocket Man’: Was that a slam of Kim Jong Un — or a compliment?

‘Rocket Man’ enters Trump’s U.N. speech — and the president’s universe of belittling nicknames