Body Language In The Trump vs. Pelosi-Schumer Meeting

How a cunning president exposed his opponents - and got them to fight on his terms.

After Pres. Donald Trump's public meeting Dec. 11 with Rep. Nancy Pelosi and Sen. Chuck Schumer about a proposed border wall, most experts criticized Trump's seeming petulance. But those critics ignored Trump's body language -- which reflected confident, tactical cunning against his two biggest legislative opponents, at least in one observer's mind.

Mandy O'Brien, a consultant with Bombards Body Language, interpreted a video of the meeting's first 19 minutes. Most of her commentary analyzed Pelosi's and Schumer's reaction to Trump through their posture and movement. That analysis began before the video started playing.

Let's set the scene. Trump invited Pelosi and Schumer to the Oval Office for what they thought would be private negotiations over funding the wall. After extending the invitation, Trump called an impromptu press conference at the Oval Office. The ensuing assembly of reporters with their cameras, microphones and recorders caught both Democratic leaders off-balance -- and it showed.

As the video began, Schumer was slouching forward with his left hand gripping his right wrist, his face showing disgust. Pelosi, meanwhile, sat erectly and stiffly with her legs close together and her left hand holding her right while managing a smile.

"Pelosi's very stressed," O'Brien said. "She's holding her hands, stressed smile, not happy. Schumer's hunched, literally like a hunchback -- hunched over, grabbing his wrists, uncomfortable. You know, it almost reminds that he really didn't expect the press to come in this room." 

Schumer also revealed his agitation by briefly and nervously tapping his right foot and the fingers of his left hand.

"See the foot going up on Schumer, the hand, the fingers going up?" O'Brien asked. "No, they're not happy. They did not expect this press to come in."

Trump, however, used his hands to form what Allan and Barbara Pearse call "the steeple" in their book, "The Definitive Book of Body Language." The fingertips on both of Trump's hands touched each other while his fingers were spread, forming a three-dimensional triangle. He maintained that position for almost the entire video.

"We found that the steeple was frequently used in superior-subordinate interaction and that it indicates a confident or self-assured attitude," the Pearses wrote. "Superiors often use this gesture position when they give instructions or advice to subordinates, and it is particularly common among accountants, lawyers and managers. People who are confident, superior types often use this gesture and, by doing so, signal their confident attitude."

Pelosi and Schumer remained defensive for the rest of the video. Even when Schumer appeared to relax as Trump began talking about the wall, the senator remained fundamentally anxious.

"Apparently at this moment, Schumer's starting to relax," O'Brien said 2 minutes, 31 seconds into the video. "It's not as bad a tongue-lashing as he initially thought. He's not grabbing his wrists any more. He just now gated: hands clasped together. His hunchness is now supported by his elbows. He's just not as tense. He's trying to get out of the 'fight or flight' mindset."

As Pelosi and Trump discussed whether he had the necessary votes for the wall, the President gesticulated with open palms, generally signifying openness.

"This is what it looks like when you have somebody giving facts back, when there's actually debate and discussion," O'Brien said about Trump. "You can point out what's wrong with what they're saying, or what's right with what they're saying. But if you have someone who constantly makes it their life mission to never have any opposition to anything they say, they don't know how to counteract that. That's what you just saw with Pelosi. She just collapses her hands back in and stays stiff."

O'Brien then made a fascinating comment.

"I will say that Trump, on the other hand, is being a little devious today," she said. "You see him look at that moment at the cameras? He knows what he's doing. (He's saying) I've sat there. I've dealt with these people behind closed doors. I know how they truly act. Now, I'm going to bring it out in the limelight and show you all -- and I'm going to behave." (italics indicate vocal emphasis)

By bringing Pelosi's non-verbal reactions into the limelight, Trump exposed the Speaker-designate's vulnerability. 

"There you have the negative head shake, the belief system up," O'Brien said at 10:41. "Not listening, shut down. That is not what you want to have in a negotiation. You should never mentally just start shaking your head, avoid eye contact and shut down. That's not a good negotiator. That's what children do."

When Schumer told Trump that the Washington Post gave the President "a whole lot of Pinocchios" concerning his assessments about the wall, O'Brien criticized the Senator's approach.

"Obviously while (Trump) was talking to Pelosi, Schumer had enough time mentally to think of a rebuttal, which is not a negotiation," she said. "It's a form of attack. That doesn't make for a very good negotiator, either." 

When Trump forcefully responded that he would reject any Congressional proposal without funding for the wall, Schumer revealed a significant personal weakness. 

"What does Schumer do? He stops looking at (Trump) instantly and goes to his wrist," she said at 17:20. "Schumer's strength is only when you are bowing down to him. If you do not bow down to him, he runs. So really, he's a pushover. He's all bark and no bite."

Schumer returned to barking with this response to Trump's comment about Republicans winning the Senate, a remark that sabotages his credibility in rural areas: "When the President brags that he won North Dakota and Indiana, he’s in real trouble." 

Pelosi and Schumer would not have embarrassed themselves publicly had Trump not contacted reporters to witness the meeting. By doing so, Trump forced his two biggest political adversaries to fight on his terms.

The President continued that approach two days later with a brief Twitter video in which he called the Democrats "absolute hypocrites" on border security. That video included brief clips of Schumer, Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama during his days as an Illinois Senator publicly opposing illegal immigration, with Clinton saying she voted "numerous times as a Senator" to fund border barriers.

A commenter named "treehugger," who said he supported Sen. Bernie Sanders for President, posted his surprising opinion of the meeting on Rod Dreher's blog at "The American Conservative":

"I’m not even (Trump's) constituency on this — and I thought the two democrats (sic) looked condescending and small. They looked like insiders annoyed with the uncouth president. They wanted to play faux-statesman masking small-minded gamesmanship — as in, strike a deal so long as Trump can’t claim a win — and to push dumb word games about who 'owns' a government shutdown. On that one, I actually found myself respecting Trump for essentially saying 'look, if that’s the foolish game you want to play, I’ll take the "blame" and I’ll take it proudly.' When you take the bullet it’s no longer a threat.

"At this point, I’m inclined to vote for Trump in 2020, for the mere fact that I see him actually taking on the sacred cows of Washington which hasn’t happened in decades. That’s the signal. The rest is noise. I’m setting aside traditional political/policy differences for this single dynamic. I know it’s arguable. And I’ll tell you I’ve never admitted that except where I can do so anonymously, like here." (emphases in original)

The public showdown with Pelosi and Schumer shreds the stereotype of Trump as the petulant adolescent. Those who underestimate him do so at their own risk.

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