Donald Trump claims he could tell from the “body language” of his intelligence briefers that they are unhappy with President Obama, but experts say it’s more likely he was seeing what he wanted to see — if he was seeing anything at all.
"We absolutely see what we wish to see," Boston College communications professor Ashley Duggan, a well-known expert on body language, told NBC News. "Some of us are better at it than others. But we often think we are better at reading body language than we are."
Even people who are trained in body language like police or intelligence officers “think they are better at it than they really are,” she added. “The only times we are pretty accurate is when we know the person very well, a spouse for example.”
Also, Trump would have had to pay extremely close attention to the facial expressions of his briefers to detect any secret dismay with Obama, Duggan said.
"You might see the outside corner of the nose making a little gesture of disgust while at the same time the person is smiling," the professor said. "Another place you see contempt is in the pressing of the lips together."
But even those can be misinterpreted, Duggan said.
Trump made the claim about what allegedly transpired at the Aug. 17 briefing on Wednesday at NBC’s Commander-in-Chief Forum.
"What I did learn is that our leadership, Barack Obama, did not follow ... what our experts said to do…And I was very, very surprised," he said. "I could tell — I’m pretty good with body language — I could tell they were not happy."
In interviews with NBC News, U.S. officials cast doubt on Trump’s take.
Joseph Tecce, who also teaches at Boston College and specializes in studying the body language of presidential candidates like Trump, said the Republican’s claim “can’t be validated or invalidated."
"He could be right, he could be wrong, none of us were there," he said.
But Tecce agrees with Duggan that deciphering the facial gestures and body movements of people we don’t know well is hard for most people.
Joe Navarro, who is both a body language expert and a former FBI agent, said he too wonders whether Trump was reading too much into the expressions and gestures of the officers doing the briefing.
“I can't think of an intelligence officer doing any such behavior,” he said. “Most analysts, give very dry briefs of the intelligence. They don't have time to editorialize with their body language nor even with words. They have so much to cover.”
Trump would have had to ask a question directly and “then someone would have to react to it, with either a look of contempt or eye roll.”
“The problem with Trump’s statement is that he is not being questioned about it,” he said. “He is self-reporting and when you self-report you can say anything.”