We might not know how they conduct themselves in private, but the new First Couple's public body language makes for some pretty interesting viewing...
We can only speculate what the inside of Donald and Melania Trump’s marriage looks like. Who knows what’s gone on behind the golden doors of Trump Tower in the 12 years since their lavish, celebrity-packed Florida wedding, or indeed what will go on when Melania eventually decamps from her glinting New York digs to the White House after Barron finishes school.
Did real love blossom between Mel and Don after they met at a Fashion Week party in 1998? Or was it always a marriage of money and convenience that’s now hurtled off in a direction Melania never foresaw? As the meme doing the rounds on inauguration day put it (attached to a picture of a startled-looking Melania) ‘when all you wanted was a sugar daddy and now you are First Lady of the United States of America.’
So it was fascinating to watch the body language between the new First Couple over the inauguration weekend. To watch them sitting just slightly apart from each other behind tables groaning with roses, to observe their awkward first dance to Sinatra’s ‘My Way’ at the Friday night ball, where Donald shuffled his wife around the presidential seal with all the outward affection of a removal man shifting a rolled-up piece of carpet.
Though it must be said there aren’t many couples out there (bar the Obamas) who’d make slow dancing on stage in front of millions of people look natural, the new President barely looked at his wife. You only have to compare it to old footage of the Obamas at the 2008 ball, where the pair frequently look into each other’s eyes and exchange gleeful ‘we did it’ grins – partners and equals in a shared victory.
When the Trumps appeared at the White House to greet the Obamas, many noted the unchivalrous way Donald barrelled straight up the steps, not bothering to wait for his wife to walk around the car first, something the Obamas appeared to pick up on as they hung back and greeted her warmly.
Then there’s this brief clip from the inauguration ceremony, which has been widely circulated online:
Is there a reason why her face falls so quickly as he turns away, after appearing to mouth ‘not you’? Some have suggested this proves she secretly loathes him. Or that he openly loathes her. Or a bit of both. Or that’s just her face and we should stop obsessively analysing five seconds of footage.
During their eight years as FLOTUS and POTUS the Obamas’ body language appeared to show a couple totally at ease with one another – cracking jokes, linking arms, nudging each other affectionately. But you’d be a fantasist to suggest the demands of two long election campaigns and the pressures of being in office can’t have worn thin at times. There’s no way Michelle and Barack got through the best part of a decade in the White House without some bickering car journeys or L.I.Bs (marriage course lingo for ‘Lecture in Bed’) – they just had the good sense to keep them private.
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Given his record as a loose canon, it’s unlikely that Donald Trump will be able to show the same level of composure during his presidency. Reports suggest he was volatile, and allegedly abusive, in his previous marriages. There was even this worrying (though later retracted) statement from his first wife Ivana about him flying into a rage and ‘raping’ her after his ‘scalp reduction’ surgery.
Even if the relationship appears to be out of her control now, according to an interview Melania gave last year, it began on her terms. When Trump asked for her number at a New York party she refused, telling him he should give her his number instead. It was a test, she claimed, to see which one he would give – work or personal – so she could establish how serious he was. A besotted Trump gave her every number he had.
It was a cool-headed start to a relationship that’s now brought her into the role of First Lady. Given her more reserved nature she is unlikely to be as comfortable in the public eye as Michelle Obama, who did away with the pomp and threw open the White House doors to ordinary people from all walks of life.
The Obamas presented themselves as a team. Melania’s unconventional desire to stay in New York until Barron finishes school suggests she’ll be more of a background figure in her husband’s presidency. ‘I am not a “yes” person’ she has said previously, ‘no matter who you are married to, you still need to lead your life.’
Whether you believe Melania knows exactly what she’s got herself into and will make the new circumstances work for her (she was married to Donald for a decade before he ran for office) or a #FreeMelania squad needs to storm the White House and whisk her away for her own safety, it’ll be interesting to watch how the new FLOTUS and POTUS navigate their new life as the most famous couple in America. They’ve certainly got a tough act to follow.
What could it all mean? Body language expert Judi James decodes three big moments between the First Couple
THE FIRST DANCE
‘The bar was set high by the Obamas at Barack’s inauguration when they turned it into a very romantic and personal event. Donald Trump seems to have no real interest in selling himself as a heroic male lead though, and his body language tells more of a man who wants to stand alone in his triumph rather than power-sharing as a marital double-act.
‘Their first dance involves one piece of eye contact and little if anything in what are called tie-signs: those small squeezes and pats or shared micro-expressions that couples use for silent communication. Trump smiles at Melania but it’s a pulled-down, mouth clamp of a smile that says little in the way of secret messaging for the biggest moment of his life. He pulls out of any romantic intimacy by singing the ‘I did it my way’ refrain and waving to the crowd.’
‘It’s those little shared looks and glances of support and love that we are used to seeing exchanged between a president and his first lady and it seems Melania is keen to offer that smiling support when Trump turns around to the people standing behind him. Her face lights up with a wide smile, but to watch how quickly and low that smile drops once he has turned back suggests she had no genuine reason to hold the moment of pleasure in place. The speed of this conversion from politely happy to what looks almost distraught is amazing, especially from a former model who should be experienced in holding a smile. ( It could be that she heard the word ‘pray’ and thought she needed to adopt a suitable expression, though.)
MEETING THE OBAMAS
‘While the Obamas stood at the top of the stairs sporting mirrored body positions that signal like-minded rapport, Trump came out of his car to walk up to greet them without performing the usual husbandly duty of waiting for his wife to walk with him. Again his approach tends to be that of a businessman, i.e. it’s his show and his job rather than a double act. Melania approached wielding the large gift which lead to a rather awkward exchange of greeting rituals. When they turn to walk into the building it’s Obama who steps back to usher the wives in while Trump walks ahead in a quasi-regal style.’