Decoding Donald Trump's Body Language In The Final Days Of His Presidency

When an elected official loses an election, or is no longer allowed to run, in the United States, there is a period where that said official becomes a lame duck and likely spends his or her time planning a life after office (via USA Today).

Instead, outgoing President Donald Trump has spent the weeks since November 3 either playing golf at one of his clubs, tweeting, or delivering speeches directed at his supporters alleging election fraud (via Washington Post). The List asked Joseph Hoelscher, body language expert and Managing Attorney at Hoelscher Gebbia Cepeda PLLC, of what he thought of the President's body language and if anything might have changed since he lost the elections. 

"Broadly, understanding a person's body language is about looking for changes in what is normal for them and trying to see patterns that have meaning," Hoelscher says. "Some reactions are rooted in subconscious, largely universal behaviors, others are particular to each person. So, it can be difficult to tell if someone is telling the truth because, without an obvious 'tell' that is unique to them, the more universal signs aren't reliable for people who believe false ideas or just don't care." 

Expert: Trump ad libs 'significantly'

Hoelscher says there are limits to reading body language."I can't tell if someone is being deceptive if they are, for example, delusional or a psychopath, just from non-verbal communication alone. That's the boat I'm in with Trump," he says. "He could believe what he's saying or he may care so little about the truth that his non-verbal communication isn't affected."

After comparing two of Trump's speeches before the announcement of the Senate run-off results, from January 4th (via YouTube) and 5th (via YouTube), to his speech later on the 6th, after rioters stormed the Capitol, when he told them to "go home," the body language expert tells The List that he had picked up some interesting points. "In all three speeches Trump ad libbed significantly,"  Hoelscher said. "When he uses a teleprompter, he refocuses his eyes directly at it, which makes it fairly obvious. However, he also doesn't read the text, but uses it more like notes."

Expert: Trump was defensive during the debates

Unlike Trump's presidential debate performances, where Hoelscher told The List that the president appeared defensive, in the speeches this week, Trump's body posture and hand gestures were open, fluid, and natural, which indicated that the president was comfortable with what he was saying. The expert said Trump didn't appear to have "any mental reservations about nearly all of what he said."

To study the president's public persona, Hoelscher says he eventually zeroed in on the number of times Trump blinks. His blink rate was consistent, except for the times when he looked at the teleprompters (his blink rate fell), or when he talked about his future plans (his blink rate rose). "On two occasions in two speeches from two days, his blink rate increased during statements such as 'watch what's coming out next, watch what's going to be revealed.' Increased blink rate is an indication of increased stress or concentration and can be one indicator for deceptiveness. His body posture also stiffened, but not in an aggressive manner (shoulders forward, head down). Taken together, I think he has no idea what's coming or going to be revealed," Hoelscher tells The List.

Trump was fired up on the morning January 6: Expert

On the fateful morning of January 6, Hoelscher says Donald Trump "went off script to rant about election night, claiming that he 'won at 10 o'clock' before the 'explosion of bulls***.' During that diatribe, his nostrils flared, his face reddened, and his posture and hand gestures remained fluid. I get the sense that this was something he's said many times in private because he said it very smoothly, but quickly, and while showing signs of anger, continued to show signs of confidence. It wasn't scripted, he wasn't concentrating on memorized lines, but he has said those words before. He believes he's been robbed."

Hoelscher says that when Trump urged his supporters to march on the Capitol, it gave viewers context for the speech he would deliver in the afternoon when he urged his supporters to return home. "It's been widely reported that he went off script and I couldn't see any moment where he was definitely using a teleprompter," Hoelscher said. "In fact, his gaze appeared to be directly at the camera, if anything, and his blink rate was consistent. His pupils appeared dilated and his respiration seemed quicker, indicating some stress, but not like in the debates. I can't say he was dishonest, though, because I think he made what he felt clear."

Expert reports that Trump's 'go home' speech was sincere

Hoelscher says Trump's style and presentation was so consistent that he believes Trump meant every word he said. "For Trump, I think [the taped "go home" statement] was a sincere speech. I cannot say he was being duplicitous or encouraging violence, I think he meant to encourage people to go home, just as he meant it when he said the election was fraudulent," the body language expert says.

The body language expert told The List that he didn't get a sense that the president thought the rioting was wrong, but that he was actually attempting to be presidential and that was as sincere as he could get. In doing that, he was only able to "be himself and deliver a message based on what he cares about." It is truly unfortunate for all of us that Trump chose to be at his most sincere when he delivered his message of love to the rioters who had taken control of the Capitol.