At the State of the Union address on Tuesday night, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi literally clapped back at President Donald Trump, proving that a picture is worth a thousand words and that a GIF is worth more than all the words in an 82-minute presidential monologue. Footage of Pelosi’s impressively sarcastic, shady clapping in response to Trump’s call for the end of “revenge politics” has become a viral sensation overnight and speaks volumes — as one body language expert tells Inverse — about how she really feels.
During the SOTU address, Pelosi clapped silently as Trump said: “We must reject the politics of revenge, resistance, and retribution, and embrace the boundless potential of cooperation, compromise, and the common good.” There is no way the clap, combined with her smirking, could be interpreted as a congratulatory move, especially given Pelosi’s aggressive pushback against the president’s behavior since the Democrats took the House majority. According to David Givens, Ph.D., director of the Center for Nonverbal Studies, Pelosi’s move was “no ordinary clap.”
“By orienting directly at him with her upper body, and extending her arms as if reaching toward him, strongly “aiming” in his direction, she is sending an aggressive message,” Givens tells Inverse. Previously, Givens’ expertise elucidated what it meant when Trump famously “lurked” behind Hillary Clinton during the presidential debate in 2016. In the SOTU GIF below, Pelosi appears to have an assassin’s aim.
It isn’t just the direction of the clap but the clapping technique that makes it so effectively shady. “The clap itself involves the heels of her palms rather than the fingers, as if to pummel or squash the president’s glaring head of hair,” says Givens.
Finally, her derisive, smirking face — which has drawn comparisons to Lucille Bluth, Arrested Development’s notoriously snide matriarch — makes her intent plain. She wasn’t having any of Trump’s performative rhetoric, and she may very well have signaled that she’s coming after him in the future.
“Her smirking smile and sideward head-tilt add some mockery to the clapping, and her direct eye contact adds some threat,” says Givens. “The verbal meaning of her applause could be glossed as, ‘Watch out! I’ll be on your case, Mr. President…’”
On Wednesday, Pelosi called out the aggressive nature of Trump’s SOTU remarks, suggesting she is not going to go down without a fight. “That was a threat,” she told reporters at the US Capitol on Wednesday, referring to Trump’s SOTU remarks on the ongoing investigations focused on his presidency. “Presidents should not bring threats to the floor of the House.”
Givens makes a compelling case, but perhaps nobody is better equipped to interpret Pelosi’s body language and silent communication than her daughter, Christine. On Twitter, she confirmed how threatening her mother’s look could be: “oh yes that clap took me back to the teen years. She knows. And she knows that you know. And frankly she’s disappointed that you thought this would work.”