Times Melania Trump's Body Language Spoke Volumes

Ever since President Donald Trump first took office in January 2017, questions have surrounded the first lady's role within his administration, as well as the state of their union. Melania Trump didn't even move into the White House until months after her husband's presidency began, and beyond the rigamarole of state dinners, official visits to foreign countries, and walking to and from the aircraft transporting them, she has engaged in very little of what usually constitutes a first lady's public life. Suggestions of a coldness between the Trumps have dogged them for years — after all, they allegedly sleep in separate chambers. And when Melania Trump does appear before the public, it is invariably as a component in an insulated, rigidly-controlled environment. She doesn't do impromptu.

Even as President Trump seeks a second term, Americans still don't know their first lady as anyone other than the tall, composed presence in oversize Gucci shades standing alongside the leader of the free world.

For all of this, it's become a game of sorts for observers to glean what is known about the relationship between FLOTUS and POTUS from official appearances and photo ops. Little details, subtle (or not-so-subtle) gestures, and other instances of nonverbal communication — are often all anybody has to go on. Here are the times Melania Trump's body language spoke volumes.

Inaugural cues

The January 2017 inauguration of Donald Trump as the 45th president of the United States elicited lots of emotions in lots of people, often in quick succession, and it was seemingly no different for his newly-minted first lady. Observers noted how Melania was left to dutifully bring up the rear as her husband stalked forward to meet Barack and Michelle Obama on the front steps of the White House. They frantically crafted .gifs out of the awkward moment on the inaugural dais when Melania's face shifted drastically from a formal smile as Donald looked at her to a depressive glance downward as he turned away. And the Internet soon boiled with a new hashtag for a new era of American political life: #freemelania.

Body language experts were ready to categorize all of these nonverbal cues. Of the president's curt, perfunctory interactions with his wife, Susan Constantine told Mic, "Melania is an object to [Trump.] I don't see any warmth or true love and compassion in that relationship whatsoever." In Marie Claire, Judi James was less than charitable about the emotion on display during the couple's first dance as president and first lady. "[It] 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."

Donald and Melania Trump had only been the first couple for a day, but everyone was already talking about what wasn't being said.

Melania Trump's swat team

In May 2017, Donald Trump's presidency kicked into gear with his first foreign visit, a week-long swing through Saudi Arabia, Israel, Palestine, and onward to stops in Europe. Weighty issues were on the docket, like Mideast peace and the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, but it was all anyone could talk about once the Internet got a load of Melana Trump appearing to swat her husband's hand away as they met Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and his wife, Sara, on the red-carpeted tarmac at Ben Gurion International Airport.

It was the latest first lady body language moment to go viral and feed the #freemelania narrative. "Trump's 'to-do' list for this trip just got a little longer," TMZ snarked. "1. Peace in the Middle East [and] 2. flowers for Melania."

In 2019, the hand-swatting moment resurfaced as part of the book Free, Melania: The Unauthorized Biography by CNN reporter Kate Bennett, who provided more context from her view of the incident (via Haaretz). "Melania dropped behind, the five-foot-wide swath of red carpet not quite big enough for Trump's girth and his penchant for easy distraction. Thus Melania lagged, unable to fit next to the other three, awkwardly relegated to unintended submissive 'walk behind the man' positioning, and she didn't like it."

Let me see your body talk

In January 2018, Closer Weekly enlisted body language expert Patti Wood to analyze a series of photographs of the president and Mrs. Trump. The images were a typical assortment — POTUS and FLOTUS walking to or away from Marine One, the President waving at onlookers with Melania Trump at his side, and a shot from the inauguration.

Wood's takeaway was not a net positive. She noted broad strokes of trouble between the Trumps, but also employed the kind of microanalytic observation specific to her subject, a woman who is both world-famous and barely known. Wood told Closer Weekly that, since Donald Trump's 2016 election, Melania has tended to walk with her head down, and that she saw "tension" in Melania's interactions with her husband. "There's no relaxation. There's no openness," she said of their posture in another photo. "Her glance and his glance are both away from each other."

Still, Wood's powers of perception also zeroed in on Melania's hand and how it hung as she stood with Trump. Significance? "She's been showing for almost a year this unusual tension all the way down to her fingertips, and this is a little bit more relaxed just in this very moment."

'Tis the season for tension and fear

"All The Hidden Body Language Messages in the Trumps' White House Christmas Card," screamed an InStyle headline. It was December 2018, and the first couple had issued their official holiday greeting, which depicted them in formal wear, flanked by Christmas trees, and looking remarkably stilted, like life-size cardboard cutouts of themselves.

"One thing quite striking is how straight up and down each of them are," Patti Wood, the body language expert, told InStyle. "They're not leaning towards each other, or curled or curved toward each other, which would be standard in a couple photo to show relationship and attachment or endearment. That's not there." She added, "The whole curve of the inner arm, and her left hand in a loose fist — just the closeness together of limbs and the tightness in the hand — all indicate tension and fear."

There may have been more to the stilted nature of the photo than even all of that tightness, tension, and lack of attention. In secret tapes recorded by former friend and advisor Stephanie Winston Wolkoff for her 2020 book Melania and Me, the first lady sounded less than enthusiastic about seasonal ornamentation.

"Who gives a f*** about the Christmas stuff and decorations?" she asked Winston Wolkoff on the tape, according to CNN. For once, the message Melania Trump was sending came through loud and clear.

A big empty birthday

For the White House's acknowledgment of Melania Trump's 49th birthday, the static from observers wasn't over what Melania's movements might suggest. It was because she didn't have anyone to react to at all. The official birthday photo in April 2019 depicted an unsmiling first lady sitting alone at the edge of a couch in the Oval Office, surrounded not by her husband or family or friends, but by a gaggle of press photographers, their equipment probing the space from every angle.

"Regardless of what you think about the first lady, you have to admit posting a photo for her birthday of all occasions where she is pictured scowling and alone in a room full of strangers is pretty harsh," wrote Refinery 29 of the image.

The site's survey of Twitter responses to the shot revealed a similar sentiment. "Can't figure out why this photo was posted," tweeted one observer. "Is this the only one of her birthday? If so, it's really depressing. Sitting there, alone, with a big empty space and a bouquet prop. Weird, actually." The White House didn't grace this social media chatter with a response, of course, so whether the birthday photo's selection illustrates its tone-deafness or is more subtext for the thriving #freemelania hashtag remains in the eye of the Internet beholder.

A nudging reminder

Sometimes, the obvious nonverbal cues between Donald and Melania Trump aren't fuel for thinking of the first lady as somehow trapped, but instead, reveal someone who helps manage the man on her arm. At the 2017 White House Easter Egg Roll, as the first couple stood at attention with their son Barron for a performance of the national anthem, Melania was seen to nudge her husband. The president immediately joined his wife in placing his hand over his heart.

Melania's nudge was tailor-made for Trump critics to point out the president's indifference to, or lack of respect for such moments of patriotism and pageantry. "An immigrant had to remind [the president] to put his hand over his heart for the national anthem," opined one Twitter observer.

Harper's Bazaar had its own rundown of the social media cattiness over this latest occurrence of non-verbal messaging between POTUS and FLOTUS. "Give Trump a break," wrote one user. "It wasn't the Russian anthem." Another user highlighted how the instance illustrated Melania's role in the administration and her marriage. "I cannot stop watching Melania Trump nudge her husband to remind him to put his hand over his heart. I TOLD y'all she needs to be here."

Melania inside the Trump maelstrom

After all the scrutiny over what her body language represents and the constructed narrative of her life as a prisoner, some observers saw in Melania Trump's behavior a woman striving for self-preservation inside a volatile political cauldron. "People who aren't fans of Trump like to see Melania as a captive, a princess in the tower," Boston-based public speaking coach and speech writer Nick Morgan told Bustle. "Sorry to people who want to create a prisoner scenario, but I think she's an independent woman who knew what Trump is like when she married him."

Writing in October 2016, in a larger piece for The Ringer exploring the role of a political wife and "the limits of feminist sympathy," Lindsay Zoladz saw in Mrs. Trump a woman complicit in her husband's garish, arrogant political theater — even if she hadn't seen it coming. "Melania does not champion other women so much as she suggests that she is above them, beyond them, and somehow immune to the messy indignities of gender," wrote Zoladz, "which has become an unfortunate shortcoming in a moment when Trump's gaffes have increasingly placed the lived realities of gender disparity at the center of the election."

At the time of this writing, years later, as Donald Trump seeks a second term, the relevance of Melania's non-verbal communication has become the only real through-line for her time in the White House. Prisoner or participant? We still don't know.


It was a passing moment caught by a press photographer at the G7 Summit in August 2019 as world leaders and their spouses gathered for a photo op. Melania Trump and Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau greeting one another, a tasteful peck on her offered cheek as she reaches ever so slightly toward him — and the bulk of Donald Trump dominating the foreground, all downcast eyes, and pursed lips.

The gossip mongers and purveyors of Internet hot takes took the ball and ran with it, declaring Melania's desperate true love for the dashing Canadian politico and generally reading way too much into the First Lady's expression and body language. Their greeting lasted an instant, but #melanialovestrudeau trended for days.

Patti Wood, a non-verbal communication expert, offered her thoughts on the photo, this time to InStyle. "She's looking with pleasure ... her offering up, the way her neck is arched up ... The body language is that of a romantic kiss." Kenzie Bryant in Vanity Fair offered her own dissection. "She looks like she's relishing her time with Trudeau, like her step-daughter looked like she was relishing her time with Trudeau."

Melania versus Ivanka

The nonverbal cues between Melania and Donald Trump are a lot to unpack. But what does Melania's body language reveal about her relationship with Ivanka Trump, who settled into an advisory role in the Oval Office while Melania remained aloof in the Executive Residence? It depends on who you ask.

In September 2020, Stephanie Winston Wolkoff published Melania and Me, and as Elle reported, the ex-friend and advisor of Melania wrote that she and the first lady plotted to block Ivanka from view during Donald Trump's inauguration. But if Melania and Ivanka are at odds, that isn't what a body language expert told Express. According to Bruce Durham, who analyzed photos of the Trump women, Ivanka "is opening herself up to Melania, she is offering her torso in that direction ... She uses Melania as her comfort blanket when she is feeling a little outside of her comfort zone."

During the Republican National Convention in August, the Melania vs. Ivanka commentary was negative. When Melania's perma-smile transformed into a haughty frown as Ivanka passed her on stage, Twitter noticed. As Outsider recounted, many commenters concocted theories of whispered insults, while yet another body language expert chimed in. "As Ivanka turns and can no longer see her, Melania's mid-face grows tense, her nostrils flare, the corners of her mouth pull back and her upper eyelids begin to open widely," tweeted Dr. Jack Brown. "Melania is feeling anger or disgust."

...it's only there trying to fool the public

In June 2020, POTUS and Mrs. Trump visited Saint John Paul II National Shrine in Washington, D.C. It was a standard-issue photo op, the sort of thing dignitaries and their spouses do all of the time. But this was Donald and Melania Trump, who in their years as the first couple have rarely if ever presented themselves as a legitimate, unified force. The president is forever distracted, talking to the media, or preoccupied with a task or target ahead. Melania is silent, poised; impenetrable behind wraparound shades.

It's precisely because the Melania-Donald dynamic is so inscrutable that their every gesture and nonverbal signal is analyzed for its meaning, or at least argued about. But this time around, observers had more to go on. As the Trumps stood at the shrine, and the president delivered a waxen grin to the assembled photographers, cameras caught him noticing in a glance that Melania wasn't smiling, and telling her to do so. And she complied. Silently.

"Melania listened to him," Kenzie Bryant wrote in Vanity Fair of the caught-on-camera moment. "She smiled. She gave him a third of a second of those pearly whites before settling into something between a duck face and sneer."

At the time of this writing, as Donald Trump seeks a second term, what his first lady doesn't say continues to speak volumes.