Forceful handshakes are one of President's Trump's fortes. You've most likely seen him gripping the hand of a foreign leader or congressional colleague and pulling them towards him in what looks like a show of dominance. It turns out, though, that unorthodox handshakes really throw Trump off his game — and we learned this during the president's Asian swing, when Trump had serious trouble with a handshake at ASEAN, the Association for Southeast Asian Nations conference.
The traditional ASEAN handshake, it turns out, isn't just one on one. It's a handshake chain, with each world leader crossing their arms in front of their chest to shake hands with the leader on either side of him. When Trump first tried it, though, he directed both of his hands to his right, leaving Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte hanging. He eventually figured it out and linked up with Duterte, but as he's quite a bit taller than the leaders on either side of him, even that created quite an awkward predicament for him. But if his bodily stance is what looks most awkward for you, then you're clearly not paying attention to the grimacing smile on his face. You can see that he's amused, at least in a way — but amusement isn't all that's there.
The event's emcee asked for the leaders' "brightest [smiles]," but this was apparently too much to ask from the struggling American president. His face shows a fuller range of emotions than many people display in an entire day — amusement at the start, surprise that he's done it wrong, confusion as he figures out how to do it right, frustration at the difficulty of getting his hand all the way into Duterte's, and then finally a grimace that really defies all reasonable explanation. And then as the other leaders smiled and collectively shook each others' hands, Trump's grimace continued, and continued.
Presidential handshakes shouldn't necessarily be a thing that people notice, but this is yet another area in which Trump is proving that he's not a traditional president. Who could forget his May handshake with French President Emmanuel Macron, in which the two of them fought for dominance like wolves? Or his strangely long first handshake with Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, with whom he actually appears to have a more friendly relationship with? Or the handshake between Trump and German Chancellor Angela Merkel that just didn't happen and that left the world wondering what possibly could have been going through the president's head in that moment?
A handshake is an important tool in any businessman's arsenal, so it makes sense that Trump would have turned his into a science. And extrapolating from that, it makes sense that a handshake that doesn't allow him to follow his general pattern would throw him off. After all, the presidency offers myriad chances to mess up handshakes with leaders from all sorts of cultures, all over the globe — even Obama had his share of extremely awkward handshakes.
This traditional handshake at ASEAN, with the crossed arms and the shorter men on either side of Trump, could have turned into a serious challenge for anyone — and indeed it did, only not to such comedic results as it did for Trump. Russian Prime Minister Dmitri Medvedev also got the handshake wrong, and it didn't come entirely easily for Australian Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull. Trump's grimace, caught by multiple photographers and then circulated, are really what sent Twitter into fits of hysteria. Perhaps that's the message that Trump should take from this moment, the same message that Hugh Grant, as the British prime minister, gives us towards the end of the Christmas classic Love Actually. What should a politician do in a potentially embarrassing public situation? He should smile.