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President Trump Met Vladimir Putin For the First Time. Here’s What a Body Language Expert Saw

5 minute read

All eyes were on U.S. President Donald Trump and Russian President Vladimir Putin on Friday when they sat down for their first face-to-face meeting on the sidelines of the G20 Summit.

The meeting, which had been scheduled to last 30 minutes, stretched to more than two hours. Trump reportedly raised the issue of Russian interference in the 2016 U.S. election, though Putin denied any meddling on Moscow’s part.

The two leaders’ conversation included discussions on “Ukraine, Syria, some bilateral and other issues,” according to the Associated Press. They also discussed “fighting terrorism and cybersecurity.”

Trump and Putin gave brief public remarks before their meeting. “We look forward to a lot of very positive things happening for Russia, for the United States and for everybody concerned,” Trump said. “And it’s an honor to be with you.”

“I’m delighted to be able to meet you personally, Mr. President,” Putin said through an interpreter. “And I hope, as you have said, our meeting will yield positive results.”

TIME spoke with Patti Wood, a body language expert, to read between the lines. Here are some key takeaways:

‘He’s the one that’s initiating’

The first glimpse of Trump and Putin came before their official meeting, when they were seen shaking hands in a video shared by German Chancellor Angela Merkel’s cabinet. Wood spotted something unusual in that footage.

“If you look at that handshake, Trump does something that is different than many other handshakes I’ve seen him do with other world leaders. He’s the one that’s initiating. His body — and whole body, actually — steps forward and leans forward as he goes to shake hands. And he offers his hand . . . more palm-up, more in supplication, which again is unusual. Usually he offers it palm down to be on top. And if you look at his demeanor, he seems to be happy.”

By comparison, Wood said Trump’s handshake with Merkel on Thursday showed the German leader making the first move.

“She offers her hand with the palm up in supplication to him and at the same time she has her head down and tilted to make eye contact with him to say, ‘Hey, we need to shake hands.’ That’s letting go of some of her power . . . he’s just standing there, and she has to make the effort to shake hands with him. And then when he shakes hands with her, it’s very brief. He’s not really in-the-moment with her. It’s just ‘O.K., this is a photo op.'”

‘He’s supportive underneath Putin’s arm’

In the same video, Trump taps Putin’s arm with his left hand during their handshake and later pats his back — a gesture that typically indicates support, Wood said.

“When you use your left hand in a handshake, typically it’s a power move, it’s a controlling move to say, ‘I surround you.’ But there are variances in that. There are slight nuances. And in this particular case, Trump puts his left hand up underneath, which is the supportive cue, up underneath Putin’s arm and taps it three times.

Now that’s going to sound odd, but three actually has a strong symbolic reference in nonverbal communication, and typically it means a true feeling or a true emotion. So you combine all those together: He’s supportive underneath Putin’s arm, he’s touching it three times in a gentle pat. It means, ‘I support you, I really support you.’

Now that is also interesting if you compare it to other handshakes where he takes that outside hand and he might grip above the elbow or grip all the way up on top of the arm or hit — have actual hitting motion — to strike the person to say, ‘I can hit you, right here. I can hit you symbolically in front of the world.’ So the tapping motion and the hitting motion are quite distinctly different.”

By comparison, Trump’s handshakes with other world leaders — including his recent white-knuckle grip with French President Emmanuel Macron at the NATO Summit — have drawn attention for being awkward or aggressive.

‘His slouch is a little bit more pronounced’

Trump’s behavior during sit-down remarks with Putin before their private meeting resembled his stance in other settings, Wood said.

“Trump has a standard seating position in these scenarios, where he has his legs spread apart and he’s doing that particular steeple pose with his hands clasped and pointed between his legs,” she said. “That’s all about manliness.”

But she noticed some slight differences on Friday compared to Trump’s previous interactions with leaders, including his post-election meeting with former President Barack Obama in the White House. For example, she said, Trump faced toward Putin during most of their exchange, and he again initiated their handshakes.

“Typically, Trump’s legs are slightly further apart. And that seems like a small thing, but it’s actually quite distinct because the legs’ breadth apart speaks to a feeling of power and manliness and alpha, so in this case, they’re not quite as far apart.

The other thing that’s interesting as you compare their demeanors is Trump usually does lean forward and he has shoulders slightly slouched. But in this case, I went back and compared this particular meeting with other meetings, and his slouch is a little bit more pronounced.”

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Write to Katie Reilly at Katie.Reilly@time.com