Donald Trump’s Handshake and Other Moves He Uses to Intimidate and Impress

U.S. President Donald Trump sits in the cab of a truck.
President Donald Trump sits in the cab of a truck. | Alex Wong/Getty Images

Sometimes, it seems like President Donald Trump is speaking another language. Words, including “surety,” “bigly,” and “covfefe,” immediately spring to mind as examples. Troublesome vocabulary aside, there is one aspect of language Trump does have a hold on: body language. His use of power moves has come under scrutiny since he started campaigning, and now we’re seeing him deploy those moves on other world leaders.
You know what we’re referring to — those powerful handshakes, shoving people aside, and his famous hand gestures. But those are just a few examples. Although Trump might be using these moves strategically, his body language leaves a lot of us wondering what the heck he’s doing.
So, what is he doing exactly? A lot of it can be traced back to self-help manuals and body-language books. One of those books (and there are volumes on this topic out there) — The Definitive Book of Body Language by Allan and Barbara Pease — explains several of the president’s favorite moves. The short and sweet of it is yes, Trump engages physically in the manner that he does because he’s executing power moves and using body language to assert dominance.
Of course, some of Trump’s body language, we have to assume, is carried out with little forethought. That goes for any of us. But looking at his body language from this angle helps us gain perspective. And you can start with that famous handshake.

1. The handshake

Trump’s handshake is likely the most recognizable of his power moves. We’ll actually dip into a few different aspects of the handshake, but keep an eye out for it the next time you see him on the news. It all stems from the idea that a weak handshake transmits a weak character, according to the Peases’ book. And as a result, Trump goes over the top to have a strong, firm shake.
Next: One important variable in the handshake equation? The position of your hand.

2. Gaining the high ground

Donald Trump and French President Emmanuel Macron shake hands.
U.S. President Donald Trump and French President Emmanuel Macron shake hands. | Mandel Ngan/AFP/Getty Images

Notice how Trump’s hand is on top in the photo above as he shakes hands with French President Emmanuel Macron. This is straight out of the Peases’ book and is called the “hand-on-top technique.” Again, it goes back to identifying the weaker, more submissive individual engaged in the shake. The Peases also recommend a method that can nullify the “top-down’s” effect: Use your other hand to perform a double-handed shake, taking back the power.
Next: But there’s more to the president’s handshake than simple positioning. Let’s just say he’s a real “yank”-ee.

3. The yank

.Belgium's King Philip shakes hands with US President Donald Trump, seeing firsthand the president's affinity for power moves and strategic body language.
Belgium’s King Philip shakes hands with President Donald Trump, seeing firsthand the president’s affinity for power moves and strategic body language. | Christophe Licoppe/AFP/Getty Images

Perhaps the most obvious and jarring thing about Trump’s handshake is he will pull the other person toward him, often in a way that was completely unexpected. We’ve seen him do it numerous times, even to his own Supreme Court justice nominee Neil Gorsuch. Once again, this is a way of intimidating the other person and is really a form of subtle aggression. It lets the other person know who’s in control.
Next: He always looks for loyalty.

4. Loyalty tests, or ‘kissing the ring’

Trump waves while walking to a waiting Marine One helicopter with son-in-law and senior adviser Jared Kushner
President Donald Trump waves while walking to a waiting Marine One helicopter with son-in-law and senior adviser Jared Kushner. | Win McNamee/Getty Images

One other interesting thing we’ve learned about Trump since he’s been elected to the White House is he reportedly gives loyalty tests to those around him. This became a main point of contention when he asked for former FBI director James Comey’s loyalty during dinner and ultimately ended up firing him. The FBI director, of course, is supposed to remain impartial and nonpartisan, putting Comey in a difficult position.
But the stories about how highly Trump values loyalty continue to come out, and those who have stuck by him have been rewarded. Examples include his son-in-law Jared Kushner, whose lack of credentials was overlooked due to his loyalty to his father-in-law. Also, Jeff Sessions, the first sitting senator to get on the Trump train, ultimately became his attorney general.
Next: Trump stops at nothing to get to the front of the pack.

5. The fight to the front

Trump fights his way to the front at a NATO summit
President Donald Trump fights his way to the front at a NATO summit. | Bombard’s Body Language/Youtube

Aside from Trump’s violent handshakes, the shove is probably the most memorable physical action he’s made since becoming president. The incident, of course, was caught on camera. And in short, it was Trump fighting his way to the front of a pack of NATO leaders, presumably because he wanted a photo-op. It was awkward but yet another method of establishing dominance and exerting control over the situation.
Next: Trump is known for his hand gestures.

6. Hand gestures

Trump uses the karate chop
President Donald Trump uses the karate chop. | Frederic J. Brown/AFP/Getty Images

The way Trump speaks is also very physical and theatrical. He uses his hands frequently and is constantly pointing, raising his fists, and even throwing in the occasional karate chop. Any public speaking expert would say the use of hand gestures is good, and Trump uses them to his advantage often. Some of his most common moves are actually explained in the Peases’ book, including “the ring” and the thumbs-up. Watch any Trump speech, and you’re sure to see these used quite liberally.
Next: But even when his hands are seemingly at rest, Trump is sending subtle signals.

7. The steeple

Trump smiles while deploying "the steeple"
President Donald Trump smiles while deploying “the steeple.” | Brendan Smialowski/AFP/Getty Images

Again, from the Peases’ book, we can learn about “the steeple.” As you’ll see in the photo above, the steeple is where “the fingers of one hand lightly press against those of the other hand to form a church steeple and will sometimes rock back and forth like a spider doing push-ups on a mirror,” according to the book. And yes, it’s a power move.
According to The Definitive Book of Body Language:

“We found that the steeple was frequently used in superior-subordinate interaction and that it indicates a confident or self-assured attitude. Superiors often use this gesture position when they give instructions or advice to subordinates, and it is particularly common among accountants, lawyers and managers. People who are confident, superior types often use this gesture and, by doing so, signal their confident attitude.”

Next: The left side has the advantage.

8. The left-side advantage

Trump shakes hands with Hillary Clinton
President Donald Trump shakes hands with Hillary Clinton | Drew Angerer/Getty Images

Who looks like they’re in control in the photo above? Trump is using the “left-side advantage” in order to send subtle signals about who’s in command. Again, this is a strategy laid out in the Peases’ book and is deployed when standing for photos. According to the book, we perceive people standing on the left to be in a position of power relative to those on the right. It also sets Trump up for getting the “top-down” handshake. This is a strategy that has been used by politicians over the years, including John F. Kennedy.

9. Facial expressions

Trump and his wife Melania greet reporters
President Donald Trump and his wife, Melania, greet reporters. | Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images

Don’t mistake Trump’s dead-eyed looks — he’s employing yet another form of body language. In this case, his facial expressions can tell us a lot. Trump’s mean-looking face, when at rest, is his “alpha face.” We know men who smile are perceived to be weaker and less dominant. So Trump uses his trademark scowl (seen above) as a way of demonstrating toughness. Just because he looks uninterested doesn’t mean he isn’t interested in looking dominant.
Next: If you’re wondering where the crack in Trump’s facade is, he does have a tell — and we have to return to his hand gestures to find it.

10. Palms out

Trump addresses a joint session of the U.S. Congress
President Donald Trump addresses a joint session of the U.S. Congress. | Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images

From time to time, Trump holds his hands up with his palms out. According to the Peases, this isn’t a power move. It’s the opposite, in fact. Speaking with your palms out is, in some cases, meant to exhibit honesty. But in others, it can be a tell the person is lying. This might be inadvertent and doesn’t necessarily mean Trump is always lying when his palms are showing. But open palms, in conjunction with an unconvincing smile, are usually a red flag.