President Trump has never made his contempt for the press a secret. In recent weeks, as the country has seen multiple mass shootings, a groundbreaking midterm election, and devastating wildfires, the president has used his platform to hammer home his belief that the greatest threat facing America is the “Fake News Media, the true Enemy of the People.”
At a press conference last Wednesday, after the midterm election results revealed that Republicans would maintain control of the U.S. Senate but lose their majority in the House of Representatives, Trump spoke with reporters for nearly 90 minutes. In that time he told a Black journalist that her question about white nationalism was “so racist” and used the body of a young female intern as a weapon to take away the microphone from CNN’s Jim Acosta.
On Friday, while giving an address on the south lawn of the White House, Trump stayed on message, telling another journalist that her question about Robert Mueller was “stupid.” In a tweet, MSNBC political analyst Joy Reid pointed out this was the third Black female journalist he’d berated in 48 hours.
We asked Dr. Jack Brown, a body language and emotional intelligence expert, as well as a physician, to break down some of Trump’s most recent interactions with the press so we can further understand the president’s behavior. Dr. Brown explained that body language analysis can be a useful tool for countering our own personal confirmation bias of a “familiar” person, such as President Trump.
“Using nonverbal tells is an objectivity tool — a way of checking our own opinions when, as human beings, we are inherently biased,” he told Refinery29.
Ahead, Dr. Brown analyzes Trump’s latest spars with journalists.
Context: In a press conference following the midterm elections (and just hours before he would announce the resignation of Attorney General Jeff Sessions), Trump got into a heated exchange with CNN’s Jim Acosta when the journalist asked about Russian interference in the 2016 election. Trump pointed at Acosta and told him, “You are a rude, terrible person. You shouldn’t be working for CNN.”
Dr. Brown notes that as the president gestured for an intern to take away Acosta’s microphone, it’s also significant that Trump himself stepped back from the podium.
“This demonstrates a short temper — for, among other things, the most powerful man in the world felt the need (on home turf, no less, for this is the East Room of the White House) to walk away from the lectern. While this did result in Jim Acosta acquiescing, Trump’s action here was symptomatic of [his] diminished impulse control.”
Speaking of the interaction between Acosta and the intern, Dr. Brown addressed the fact that Sarah Huckabee Sanders released doctored video footage of the incident. Specifically it was altered to make it appear like Acosta moved his left forearm down quicker than he actually did.
“Note that Acosta’s hand is open, not closed; it only touched the intern because she encroached into his personal space (technically when it’s this close, it’s termed, ‘intimate space’). His voice never gets aggressive,” noted Dr. Brown.
Context: Later on in the same press conference, Trump responded to PBS Newshour journalist Yamiche Alcindor’s question regarding whether the president’s recent rhetoric might embolden white nationalists, by telling her, “That’s such a racist question.”
Dr. Brown explained, “When he said this, you’ll note the president points with his index finger at Ms. Alcindor. This is an aggressive and offensive gesture across all cultures on every continent. Yet, if we look closer, we see Mr. Trump is not extending his arm. In fact, it’s retracted with his forearm and his upper arm pulled back in what is a considerably beta and significantly feminine configuration.
“The fact that a portion of this body language is alpha and aggressive, but another portion is beta and feminine, indicates that Trump has emotional dissonance. Part of his psyche wants to insult — and he certainly does — while another portion of it is intimidated by the question. Notice he also asks three times in succession, ‘Why do I have my highest poll numbers with African-Americans?’ (Which is a false claim — they are historically low versus other presidents.) Trump can’t think of a good answer, so he stalls with rhetorical-false questions — and he insults.”
Context: Before departing on a trip to France on Friday, November 9, Trump took questions from reporters on the South Lawn of the White House. CNN correspondent Abby Phillip asked whether Matt Whitaker, the acting attorney general, would be involved in the Mueller investigation.
He responded, “What a stupid question that is. What a stupid question. But I watch you a lot. You ask a lot of stupid questions.”
Dr. Brown wrote, “Just after Abby Phillip asks, ‘Do you want him to rein in Robert Mueller?’ , Trump closes his eyes, tilts his head to his right, and clearly displays contempt. This contempt expression is centered on his left mouth corner, the tightening of the area above his upper lip and below his nose (a.k.a. the ‘mustache region’), along with the (mild) flaring of his left nostril.
“His closed eyelids, as well as the tilting of his head, while not required for a contempt display, here both act as contempt amplifiers. Two seconds later, Trump displays what is known as a lip curl (his upper lip flaring out slightly) as he says the word, ‘is.’ A lip curl signals hubris, braggadocio, and/or bravado. Listen carefully, for Trump tends to have a slight lisp when displaying the lip-curl signal (a nonverbal tell he often exemplifies).
“Trump responds with a ‘finger-point-hand-chop’ as he says, ‘You ask a lot of…’ When verbally responding to a question in this manner, it’s a subconscious affirmation that what was asked (in this case, ‘Do you want him to rein in Robert Mueller?’) is, in fact, true.”
Context: Still on the South Lawn, Trump addressed his earlier interaction with Jim Acosta. He used this as an opportunity to lash out at other journalists, including April Ryan, one of the few Black female White House reporters.
“You talk about somebody that’s a loser; she doesn’t know what the hell she’s doing. She gets publicity, and then she gets a pay raise or a contract with, I think, CNN. But she’s very nasty. And she shouldn’t be. She shouldn’t be. You’ve got to treat the White House and the office of the presidency with respect.”
Here, Trump’s words speak for themselves, but Dr. Brown picked up on a different moment during the South Lawn gathering that he found particularly interesting from a nonverbal communication standpoint. As the president continued to discuss Matt Whitaker, Jeff Sessions, and Robert Mueller, he made a very unusual gesture.
“At 3:46, as he says, ‘…a man who worked for Sessions,’ Trump very clearly gestures with his right hand, and as if he were Christian clergy giving a sermon — traces the sign of the cross… Make no mistake, the president deliberately displayed this very clear sequence of gestures. Trump has never exhibited this unmistakable and classic Christian behavior in public since he announced his candidacy on June 16th, 2015…
“President Trump used a traditional Christian crossing gesture on the South Lawn of the White House Friday while voicing his praise for Matt Whitaker as acting attorney general. This maneuver was a deliberate and conscious act. In this context, such crossing is pseudo-religious, and indeed, it’s cult-engendering. Trump either perceives himself as a religious figure, or he wants his followers to view himself as God-like (or both).”
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