HELSINKI – Russian President Vladimir Putin and his trademark macho posture converged with President Donald Trump and his classic power stance as the leaders met on the world stage in Finland.
Seated in Helsinki’s ornate Gothic Hall, Putin appeared to slouch in his chair and looked off to the side at times on Monday, avoiding eye contact with Trump at the start of their high-profile talks. The taller Trump leaned forward in his chair, his forearms resting on his thighs and his hands connected by his fingertips as he appeared alongside with Russia’s leader. Hours later, the two leaders stood a few feet apart at lecterns as Trump declined to condemn Russia’s interference in the 2016 election, which U.S. intelligence agencies have said occurred.
Trump and Putin had met twice previously but the Helsinki summit represented their most significant convocation to date, an encounter replete with non-verbal cues as two leaders known for their tough personas sized each other up once again.
For Trump, the meeting was the capstone to a weeklong European trip that has rattled NATO allies and came only hours after a series of tweets bemoaning the “rigged witch hunt” involving the investigation into his campaign’s ties to Russia. For Putin, it came only three days after the Justice Department announced the indictment of a dozen Russian military intelligence officers on charges related to the hacking of Democratic targets in the 2016 U.S. election.
Shortly after they entered the room and took their chairs, Trump gave Putin a quick wink as the sounds of camera shutters filled the room. He deferred to Putin to speak first, extending his hand, and then nodded as he listened to the translation of Putin’s remarks.
As Putin was speaking, Trump alternated between gazing at the Russian leader, occasionally making eye contact, and looking straight ahead as he tapped his fingers slightly and listened. The two exchanged a brief “thank you” after Putin wrapped up his remarks.
When Trump spoke, Putin leaned to his right in his chair, his elbow placed on the armrest near a small table that separated the two.
Putin appeared receptive when Trump congratulated him on Russia’s hosting of the World Cup and but seemed “somewhat bored” and less engaged when the American president predicted they would have an “extraordinary relationship,” said Mary Civiello, a New York-based executive communications coach who studies non-verbal communications.
Both leaders were vying for dominance in the room. “There’s mutual respect but it’s competitive,” Civiello said.
“Trump is a larger man and he is bigger but when you look at Putin and watch him, you think of the old saying, ‘Dynamite comes in small packages,'” she said.
The Russian leader glanced at his counterpart and nodded at times; at other moments Putin appeared to look to the floor as he listened to his translator.
Wrapping up his remarks, Trump initiated a brief handshake with Putin as the assembled press jostled to capture the moment. Both edged closer while seated in their chairs, briefly reaching over to clasp each other’s right hand.
Putin appeared to smirk as Trump ignored shouted questions about whether he would warn the Russian leader against meddling in the 2018 midterm elections.
In a lighter moment, Putin presented Trump with a red-white-and-black soccer ball from the World Cup, which concluded Sunday in Moscow. Trump smiled as he showed the ball to the television cameras and said he’d give it to his 12-year-old son Barron, a soccer fan. He tossed the ball to his wife Melania, seated in the front row.
Trump’s predecessor, President Barack Obama, often pushed back against the frequent analyses of the body language in his meetings with Putin.
During a 2013 news conference, Obama insisted that he didn’t have bad personal chemistry with Putin but offered a memorable description of the Russian leader. “He’s got that kind of slouch,” Obama said of Putin, “looking like the bored kid at the back of the classroom.”
Despite that, Obama said their conversations were often “very productive.”
Thomas reported from Washington.