Before he was the most polarizing president in American history, Donald Trump was known as a magnanimous businessman with a preternatural talent for schmoozing. He ascended to fame by trading favors with New York tabloid reporters and weaseling his way into their gossip columns, and was particularly adept at convincing banks to loan him gobs of money he may or may not have been good for. As a sleazy businessman with a penchant for slick negotiations, he projected an image that was simultaneously authoritative and disarming.
This was the persona on display Monday during Trump’s historic summit with North Korean leader Kim Jong-un, who once used an antiaircraft gun to execute a general who fell asleep in a meeting.
Time will tell if the Singapore event amounts to anything world-changing — we’ll see if Kim follows through on his ill-defined pledge of denuclearization — but what was clear immediately was just how comfortable Trump looked with the autocratic despot known for running death camps and torturing dissidents. Trump and Kim patted each other on the shoulder as though they were old friends.
The image stands in stark contrast to this instantly iconic photo of German chancellor Angela Merkel standing imposingly over Trump while he sits, arms crossed and defiant, with a shit-eating grin on his face.
So what was different about this event? Was Trump genuinely humbled by a leader who’s killed hundreds of people, including his own family members? Or was he playing another game of “4-D chess”?
To find answers, MEL spoke to two body language experts about Trump and Kim’s behavior — and what it spells for, ya know, the future of world peace.
Trump Appeared Deferential for Once
Trump is known for aping an old-school, tough-guy code of masculinity. He often tries to establish himself as the alpha dog in the room. In November, the president joked about calling the dictator “short and fat.” But on Monday, he appeared more deferential, according to Susan Constantine, a body language expert and owner of executive coaching firm the Human Behavior Lab.
“When Trump first walked out to meet Kim, [Trump] approached with his hand extended,” she says. “That basically says, ‘I’m coming unarmed.’ That’s a sign of friendship and trust. And they made strong eye contact, which is a strong indicator of rapport.”
Trump reinforced this by approaching with his palm facing up, as opposed to down, allowing Kim — who allegedly had his own half-brother killed — to literally take the upper hand in their initial handshake, Constantine explained. “Typically, palm down is a sign of dominance and control. But Trump does the opposite; he lends out his hand in trust. And that de-escalated the situation.”
Trump also repeatedly touched Kim on his upper forearm and shoulder, Constantine pointed out, which signals familiarity and camaraderie. “There’s a very natural rapport between them,” she said of Trump and Kim, a leader who forces his people into submission with the threat of starvation. “They feel comfortable around each other.”
Or Was Trump Just Playing Kim?
While Constantine contends that Trump acted submissively to make Kim feel at ease and establish trust, body language expert Patti Wood, author of the book Snap: Making the Most of First Impressions, Body Language and Charisma, said all the touchy-feely gestures may have been an attempt by Trump to establish a dominant position by catching Kim off guard.
Excessive touching is considered gauche in Asian cultures, and “Trump seemed to be making Kim uncomfortable,” she says. “And he touched him several more times on the shoulder, and that’s very rule-breaking within Asian cultures.”
This interpretation all depends on how you read the smile on Kim’s face during his interactions with Trump. To a Westerner, Kim—in whose country mothers are reportedly forced to watch the murder of their children—seemed downright jovial. But Wood says it’s common in Asian cultures to wear a forced smile. “If you do business in Asia, their smile is a masking smile,” she explains. “It’s their way of being polite and neutral. Women in the U.S. have been doing this for generations.”
Trump was also the first to speak when he, Kim and their phalanx of aides sat down at the negotiating table, another sign of Trump trying to establish dominance. But a generous read on this situation is Kim, who’s not used to playing on the world stage, was intimidated by all the press in attendance, and Trump did him a favor by taking on the limelight.
Either Way, Experts Say, His Methods Worked
Wood doesn’t disagree that Trump was at least trying to appear obsequious to Kim. “Trump is very careful with what he does. There’s a lot of gamesmanship at play here,” she says. “His approach was, Let me appear to be open and passive, and then I’m going to play with you.”
Trump’s bluster and self-aggrandizement surely helped him land in the White House. As far as his actual negotiating skills go, though, the American people haven’t really seen it in action. But Constantine, for one, was impressed with Trump’s performance for the dictator whose concentration camps host the rape, murder and torture of political prisoners, including a woman who was stripped naked and set on fire for “annoying a guard.”
“In this trip, [Trump] has shown he can be presidential, whereas other times he’s been… a little off color, to say the least,” she said. “But he’s a shrewd businessman. He is smart at negotiation. That’s why people put him in office.
“And this time, he worked at establishing trust. And it worked.”