French President Emmanuel Macron met with President Trump at the White House April 24 as part of a state visit. (The Washington Post)
About the authors
Nichole Russell is an M.A. political science candidate at the University of Arkansas, where she specializes in political discourse, joint press conferences, and aggressive journalistic behavior.
Patrick A. Stewart is associate professor of Political Science at the University of Arkansas, Fayetteville whose research concentrates on the emotional response of followers to leaders.

On Tuesday, President Trump took a peculiar break from the norms of international diplomacy to brush what he said was “dandruff” off French President Emmanuel Macron’s jacket. It was an unusual, possibly inappropriate gesture, but perhaps something more than bemusement drove the ensuing flood of coverage, memes and jokes .

For a president who constantly reminds us how frank he is, Trump seldom interacts with the press. On the rare occasions when he does, his remarks don’t always provide a clear indication of what he’s thinking. By contrast, his body language — with Macron and in other sometimes-bizarre interactions with leaders — seems to reveal something more essential, more consistent, about his mind-set. It’s here we see the man as he really is.

Trump has held only one solo news conference since his inauguration, preferring joint news conferences alongside foreign leaders, with a total of 27 to date. In this way, Trump limits the number of questions he faces from journalists to roughly four and increases the possibility of interactions with foreign dignitaries. Academic research indicates that standards of politeness further constrain the atmosphere, making it that much harder for journalists to employ aggressive questioning techniques and follow-up queries .

What’s more, carefully parsing Trump’s words is not enough, because he offers an incessant flow of hyperbolic, polarizing, contradictory statements. He’ll declare a position and then reverse it online, or he’ll propose an idea that the administration later walks back.

It’s little wonder, then, that some turn to studying other symbols as they attempt to make sense of his mind-set. In particular, Trump’s behavior with foreign leaders is often aggressive in unexpected but telling ways. During his first NATO summit in Brussels , for instance, the U.S. president worked his way to the front of a pack of dignitaries, brusquely shoving Prime Minister Dusko Markovic of Monte­negro out of the way as he headed to his destination. Observers around the world struggled to interpret the gesture and what it said about America’s relationship with its strategic partners.

The “dandruff” incident isn’t even the first uncomfortable physical interaction Trump and Macron have had. The two shared a long, awkward handshake during their first meeting, in May 2017, when they gripped each other’s hands for an abnormal period of time, resulting in white knuckles and clenched jaws.

These physical encounters point to Trump’s need for dominance. Understanding his nonverbal interactions this way might tell us more about his thoughts and feelings than his words do.

It’s easy enough, for example, to extract a story from the changing patterns of contact between Trump and Macron. While their earlier handshakes suggest a competition for dominance, Trump’s more recent loose-jawed smile of amusement, and his playful removal of “dandruff,” could now indicate a rough-and-tumble relationship between equals. Even if he’s still trying to show that he’s the top dog, he seems to be doing it in a friendlier spirit.

On other occasions, Trump has aggressively refused physical contact with foreign dignitaries — he famously turned down a handshake with German Chancellor Angela Merkel during a meeting in the Oval Office last year. The gesture, CNN wrote, “was taken as a sign of the tensions between the two leaders.” (They did shake hands on Friday.)

It’s understandable, then, that so many observers focus on these details. With his cheap talk often signifying nothing, at least where tangible policymaking is concerned, the signals of nonverbal behavior, which make feelings evident in actions, become that much more significant. They’re no Rosetta Stone, but body movements, facial displays and, yes, inappropriate grooming are more reliable than words alone when trying to understand someone’s intent.

Perhaps this is why stories about Trump’s behavior are so attractive: It’s one of the only ways to figure out how the president truly feels in the moment.

CORRECTION: An earlier version of this story gave an incorrect number for how many joint press conferences President Trump has held with foreign leaders. Through Friday morning, he had done 26 such appearances, not 23. The total as of Friday afternoon is now 27.

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