Two Questions About a Surreal Oval Office Exchange

Canary (left), and cat. (Kevin Lamarque / Reuters)

About the author: James Fallows is a contributing writer at The Atlantic, and author of the newsletter Breaking the News. He was chief White House speechwriter for President Jimmy Carter, and is a co-founder, with his wife, Deborah Fallows, of the Our Towns Civic Foundation.

Editor’s Note: This article previously appeared in a different format as part of The Atlantic’s Notes section, retired in 2021.

Please read my colleagues Russell Berman, Elaina Plott, and Amanda Mull on the spectacle that took  place this afternoon in the Oval Office.

Like all but a handful of people, I saw this exchange first online, then in TV replays. Here are two body-language questions I wish I’d had the opportunity to judge up close and in person:

  1. Did Donald Trump register that Chuck Schumer was mocking him, to his face, with his “When the president brags he won North Dakota and Indiana, he’s in real trouble” line?

    I gasped when I saw that the first time. I’m conscious of having seen presidents from John F. Kennedy onward perform on TV, but never before have I seen one of them directly ridiculed by another senior governmental official. (To spell it out, the ridicule was Trump’s boasting about big Senate wins, based on unseating two endangered Democrats in very Republican states. Trump wasn’t talking about the results in West Virginia, Ohio, Arizona, Nevada, etc., nor of course about the House.) The closest comparison might be the labored humor of White House Correspondents Association dinners, in which the featured comedian would give the president—seated a few feet away—a celebrity-roast experience.  But that was ritualized joshing, sometimes more pointed and sometimes less. What Schumer did was impromptu and meant to convey, “Can you believe this guy?”

    That Schumer would dare make this taunt was surprising—though I suppose he could have thought to himself, “We’re two New Yorkers, we’ve known each other for decades, this is give and take.” The more surprising aspect was that Trump, hyper-alert to slights of any sort, didn’t seem to register what had happened at all. He came back with a bland, “Well we did win! We did win North Dakota, and Indiana”—as if Schumer had been challenging him on that factual point. It’s as if the response to “Ooooh, you won a participation award! You must be so proud!” had not been “Shut up!” but “Yes, I did win that.” You can see the back-and-forth starting around time 11:45 of this video.

    Did the president of the United States recognize that the minority leader of the Senate intentionally mocked him, and even turned to the press pool while doing so? From a distance, it appears that Trump did not catch this in real time. I would love to have been there to see for myself.

  2. Did Mike Pence register any emotion whatsoever, during the 15-minutes plus of this extraordinary exchange?

Pence is as well-positioned as anyone in America to understand the nuances of what was going on. He spent six terms in the House. As vice president, he now serves as president of the Senate. Obviously he is second-in-command to Trump. He must have had a substantive and emotional reaction to everything he heard. He must have recognized what Nancy Pelosi did, when she immediately brushed back Trump’s condescending suggestion that she was worried about her own support with a steely reminder of the constitutional prerogatives of the Congress.

And yet he did not speak a word—and at least as far as one could judge on TV, he controlled his face, torso, hands, and other instruments of body language so completely as to seem utterly without affect. Almost taxidermied. The bearing that guards practice before duty outside Buckingham Palace appears to have been his goal—which he attained. The photo below could have been taken at any moment of the session:

Mike Pence, second from left, as he appeared throughout (Kevin Lamarque / Reuters)

Was it any different if you were there? Did he betray any reaction of any sort, no matter how fleeting or small? If he did, that would be interesting. And if he didn’t, that is also significant and impressive in its way.

There’s one more body-language aspect, for which first-hand experience is not necessary. It’s the attempt of Republican representatives and senators to wave away what TV viewers had just seen.

For instance, this evening on the PBS News Hour, GOP Representative Doug Collins, of Georgia, danced around Judy Woodruff’s repeated attempts to get him to say whether he agreed with Trump’s pledge to shut down the government if he didn’t get full funding for “the wall.” Collins also acted as if he had not heard Trump’s impassioned claim to Schumer that “I will be proud to shut down the government for border security” and “I will take the mantle. I’m not going to blame you [the Democrats] for it.” (See the claim here.) Like Mitch McConnell and some of his GOP colleagues, Collins has transmuted this to a “bargaining point” for Trump, about which the Democrats had to “come to the table.”

If I were a Republican legislator, I would say exactly the same thing. Collins handled the interview very well (as did Woodruff). He was trying to steer the whole discussion back toward the realm of political feasibility, from whose shores it had drifted very far this afternoon.