President Trump kicked off his trip to Europe with a biting critique of the United States’ longtime allies, declaring at a breakfast meeting that Germany “is captive to Russia.” Next to him, three of his senior officials seemed uncomfortable at times, pursing their lips and glancing away from the table.
Trump is in Brussels for the 29th annual NATO summit, where he is meeting, among others, German Chancellor Angela Merkel. His charge that Germany is captive to Russia comes days before he is scheduled to sit down with Russian President Vladimir Putin in a one-on-one that he has described as the “easiest” of his meetings this week.
In the clip shown above, Trump begins by citing German imports of Russian gas as evidence that “Germany is totally controlled by Russia.” NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg remains stoic as Trump lays out his complaint, but U.S. ambassador to NATO Kay Bailey Hutchison and White House Chief of Staff John F. Kelly look uncomfortable. Hutchison appears to avert her gaze from her NATO colleagues sitting across from her, while Kelly looks down, then shifts his body and glances away, lips pursed tightly.
Of course, it's impossible to say exactly what was going through the minds of Trump's aides.
In a statement to The Post, White House press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders said, "[Kelly] was displeased because he was expecting a full breakfast and there were only pastries and cheese."
Patrick Stewart, an associate professor of political science at the University of Arkansas, said Kelly's facial reaction at that moment can be described as a combination of a “chin-raiser” and a “lip-corner dimpler,” both of which are associated with annoyance. “He's expressing with his lower face that he's displeased, maybe irritated,” said Stewart, who is certified in the Facial Action Coding System used by experts to break down human facial movement. “It's not really hardcore anger.”
Mary Civiello, an executive communications coach with 15 years of experience studying body language, agreed. She noted that Kelly rarely looked directly at Trump, suggesting that he is “not completely synced up” with what the president is saying.
Typically, when people are “involved in a persuasive effort together,” those in nonspeaking roles will gaze at the person who is talking, occasionally nod to reinforce what they are saying and then look at those on the opposite side of the table to convey a sense of unity, Civiello said. In contrast, she said, Kelly looks away from the table and at the ceiling but rarely at Trump or at the NATO representatives across from him.
“Kelly looks like he wants to be anywhere but where he is,” Civiello said.
Later at the breakfast meeting, Trump renews his attacks, gesticulating as he says that Germany is “captive to Russia because it’s getting so much of its energy from Russia.” As Trump enunciates the word “captive,” nearly all of the U.S. aides seen in the clip have a noticeable reaction. On his left, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo turns his head away from Trump and looks down at the plate in front of him, while on his right, Hutchison flinches, straightens up abruptly and casts her eyes toward the president. At the far end of the table, Kelly tightens his mouth.
Kelly “is leaning back, his hands are crossed. He’s kind of accepting it at this point,” Stewart said, adding, however, that it was hard to give an accurate reading of the former U.S. Marine general's attitude without having a thoroughly researched, baseline understanding of what his behavior is like.
Mandy Johnson, a spokeswoman for the U.S. Mission to NATO, said she was not able to provide immediate comment.