In October 2019, we received multiple inquiries from readers about the accuracy of social media posts and online articles claiming that U.S. President Donald Trump had made an obscene gesture towards an astronaut after she corrected a factual error he had made.
Anti-gun violence activist Shannon Watts tweeted out a short video clip of the incident, writing: "When gently corrected by one of the astronauts about how other women have spacewalked, Donald Trump uses his middle finger to 'fix' his hair. How is this even real life?"
When gently corrected by one of the astronauts about how other women have spacewalked, Donald Trump uses his middle finger to "fix" his hair.
How is this even real life? pic.twitter.com/9bnj7XfY1m
— Shannon Watts (@shannonrwatts) October 21, 2019
The left-leaning Facebook page The Other 98% repurposed Watts' viral tweet in a video:
Jack Brown, whose Twitter bio describes him as a "body language and emotional intelligence expert," posted a lengthy and widely shared analysis of the president's non-verbal gestures during the incident, concluding that: "This gesture is very much what it looks like — Donald Trump is giving Astronaut Jessica Meir the finger while she's walking in space. He's subconsciously telling her to 'fuck off'. But if you weren't paying close attention, you'd miss it."
The left-leaning blogs Crooks and Liars and the Daily Kos joined in the chorus of allegations, with posts whose headlines read "Trump Flips Off Female Astronaut Who Corrected Him During Space Conference" and "POTUS Flipped the Bird at Astronaut Jessica Meir," respectively.
Various other news news outlets did not explicitly claim Trump made the obscene gesture, but they extensively repeated various iterations of the allegation or phrased their headlines as questions.
Whether Trump stuck his middle finger up towards Meir as a gesture of anger or defiance against being publicly corrected depends on what his state of mind and intent were at that moment. Since neither we nor anyone else, other than the president himself, can gain access to his state of mind, that claim remains inherently unproven.
However, we have reviewed many hours of video footage of Trump's public appearances and found several instances where he rubbed or scratched his face with his fingers. Our conclusion is that very little evidence exists to support the claim that Trump typically raises his middle finger in anger or disgust during similar incidents, while considerable evidence exists of a much simpler explanation: his hair, his eyebrows, and his face sometimes itch.
October 2019 — Spacewalk
On Oct. 18, Trump spoke by satellite link to NASA astronauts Jessica Meir and Christina Koch, who had just performed the first all-female spacewalk outside the International Space Station. In his remarks, Trump said of the women: "They're conducting the first ever female spacewalk to replace an exterior part of the space station ..." In response, Meir politely corrected the president, saying: "We don't want to take too much credit because there have been many other female space-walkers before us — this is just the first time there have been two women outside at the same time."
As Meir made this point, Trump brought his right hand up to his face and briefly rubbed his middle finger along his forehead towards his right temple:
This was the source of the many claims that Trump had intended this ,movement as an obscene gesture of disdain, anger, or defiance against being publicly corrected, especially by a woman.
Anecdotally, it appears that people more commonly use their index fingers, or multiple fingers, to scratch an itch or rub their faces, and the logic of the argument was that the unconventional use of a lone middle finger meant a simple, innocuous head scratch was not a plausible explanation for Trump's gesture, and that he must therefore have intended it as a way of telling Meir to "fuck off," as Jack Brown's Twitter thread concluded.
Few of these claims, often presented with a tone of absolute certainty and authority, mentioned the fact that Trump has actually used his middle finger in this way on multiple occasions, a sample of which we examine in this fact check.
Brown has repeatedly claimed that Trump "rarely touches his face/neck/head while speaking," meaning that "when he does occasionally commits [sic] such a faux pas, we can be sure his action is driven by strong emotions (which over-ride his normal suppression for facial touching)." But none of the claims, including Brown's, mentioned the fact that Trump had done the same thing in the same room less than three minutes earlier.
The full C-SPAN video of the event (as opposed to the truncated version posted to YouTube) shows that, towards the beginning, Trump made the very same movement with his right hand and middle finger. In that moment, NASA administrator Jim Bridenstine was offering relatively generic introductory remarks as the room waited for the satellite link to be confirmed and for the president to begin his conversation with Meir and Koch.
Immediately before Trump made the gesture, Bridenstine said, "Just so everyone knows, there's a short window for the downlink, and also they've got very busy work to do ...":
What "strong emotions" (to use Brown's term) drove Trump to brandish his middle finger in this case? Was it "There's a short window for the downlink," which supposedly provoked such rage and defensiveness in him? Or did he simply have a particularly itchy face during that meeting, which manifested itself twice in less than three minutes?
Nobody can say with certainty, but it appears to us much more likely that Trump was rubbing or scratching along his hairline because he had an itch or some discomfort, rather than that -- twice in three minutes -- he was non-verbally telling the NASA administrator and an astronaut where to go, so to speak.
September 2019 — Lenín Moreno on Venezuela
On Sep. 25, Trump hosted a multilateral meeting about the political crisis in Venezuela with the attendance of multiple Latin American heads of government, each of whom took their turn in offering remarks. Towards the end of the meeting, Ecuador's President Lenín Moreno spoke, echoing official U.S. policy (and Trump's earlier comments) by condemning the regime of Nicolás Maduro and addressing the issue of Venezuelans who had fled to other South American countries.
Moreno said "We are talking about over four million people, who are humble people, who have fled ..." when Trump raised his right hand to his face and used only his middle finger to briefly scratch between his nose and cheek:
Not only was Moreno expressing sentiments about Venezuela that were in line with U.S. policy and were similar to Trump's own remarks in the meeting, Moreno is, more broadly, something of an ally of Trump's. Since his election in May 2017, he has sided with the U.S. in opposing Maduro and supporting Juan Guaidó's claim to the Venezuelan presidency, and he ended the policy of giving refuge to WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange in Ecuador's London embassy, potentially laying the ground for his extradition to the United States.
So, in using his middle finger during Moreno's rather friendly speech, was Trump expressing fury at some unknown slight? Or was he, once again, responding to no more than the nerve endings between his nose and cheek?
And why did this middle-finger incident not attract the serious analysis of the same social media users and reporters who jumped into action on other occasions? Was it simply because it escaped their attention, or because the context did not provide a factual framework onto which a bird-flipping narrative could be superimposed?
August 2019 — Working lunch with Macron
On Aug. 24, on the fringes of the 2019 G7 summit in Biarritz, France, Trump held a working lunch with French President Emmanuel Macron. With cameras snapping and journalists recording, the two men took a few minutes to make semi-public, introductory remarks.
Trump and Macron have had a complicated public relationship, but based on our analysis of multiple hours of video footage, including several international summits, the two men tend to greet each other with particular warmth in public appearances. And at the Biarritz lunch, each spoke very positively of the other and of the (also historically complicated) Franco-American alliance. Trump declared that "We actually have a lot in common ... we've been friends for a long time. Every once in a while we go at it just a little bit, not very much, but we get along very well, we have a very good relationship ..."
Trump nodded in agreement throughout Macron's preliminary remarks. At one point, the French president said, "When I look at Europe, especially, we need some new tools to relaunch our economy. We decided, we'll probably decide, to have new tax cuts, which is one of the ways to launch [an economy] ..." At that point, Trump raised his left hand to his left temple, and appeared to use his middle finger to rub or scratch his left temple, all while continuing to nod in agreement with Macron:
To whom or to what was Trump non-verbally saying "fuck off," in that moment? Macron in general? Macron's proposal to lower taxes, in particular? Tax cuts as a mechanism of economic stimulus? Someone off-camera positioned to his left? The security guard standing in the corner of the courtyard, behind the president? Or does none of that make sense because Trump was, yet again, sending no message?
September 2017 — Robert Kraft and the anthem protests
On Sep. 25, 2017, Trump spoke to reporters about the ongoing controversy surrounding the decision by some NFL players to protest against police brutality and racial injustice by symbolically kneeling during the playing of the U.S. national anthem before games.
Trump repeatedly waded into the dispute, and two days earlier he had voiced his opinion that team owners should fire any player who took part in that form of protest, using the phrase "son of a bitch" to describe such players. Several team owners publicly criticized those remarks, including Trump's longtime personal friend, Robert Kraft, the owner and CEO of the New England Patriots.
On Sep. 25, a reporter put it to the president that "Your friend Robert Kraft said he was disappointed by what you said," to which Trump responded, "Well that's okay. Look, he has to take his ideas and go with what he wants. I think [the protest] is very disrespectful to our country ..." At that point, Trump made the now-familiar movement, bringing his right hand up to his face and dragging his middle finger from above his eyebrow to his right temple:
On the basis of that gesture, several Twitter users and websites, including Esquire magazine speculated or claimed that Trump had decided to flip the bird at the mention of Kraft's criticism. That's possible, of course, but it should be remembered that Trump and Kraft have been close friends for several decades, and a few months later Kraft said of Trump that:
The only bad deal I’ve had in my whole life is when my wife, bless her memory, died of ovarian cancer. [Trump] flew up to the funeral with Melania. They came to my home. And he called me once a week for a year and invited me to things. That was the darkest period of my life. And I’m a pretty strong person. But my kids thought I was going to die. There were five or six people who were great to me. He was one of them ...
I know he does things or says things that ... You know, he doesn’t mean everything he says. I’m privileged to know that. People who don’t know him don’t see the better side. But I’ll tell you one thing: He’s very hardworking. I really believe that he wants to make this country better. And he’s grown in the job. I’ve seen it, too. For me, it’s like having a high school buddy or a fraternity brother become president. It’s weird in a way, but it’s cool. I want to do anything I can to help him help this country.
When Kraft was arrested and charged with solicitation of prostitution in February 2019, Trump made sympathetic remarks about his friend without explicitly proclaiming his innocence or offering unconditional support:
NEW: Pres. Trump on charges against Patriots owner Robert Kraft: "Well, it's very sad. I was very surprised to see it. He's proclaimed his innocence totally, but I'm very surprised to see it." https://t.co/bHHgDtBTng pic.twitter.com/ZUqrwLMHXj
— ABC News (@ABC) February 22, 2019
If the president were aiming a bird at Kraft in September 2017, the gesture didn't appear to have damaged the friendship between the two men.
May 2017 — Paolo Gentiloni says "Good morning"
On May 26 and 27 of 2017, Trump attended the annual G7 summit of world leaders, held on that occasion in Taormina, Italy. At the start of the first day, Prime Minister Paolo Gentiloni made an introductory speech to welcome the many heads of state and government sitting around a large table. Trump was seated two places to Gentiloni's right.
The prime minister began his speech with, "Well, good morning. Bonjour." Just as Gentiloni was issuing the same greeting in Italian, Trump raised his left hand to his left eyebrow and used only his middle finger to rub his eyebrow and temple:
As we examined in a fact check at the time, Trump's stray digit prompted multiple left-leaning websites and social media accounts to jump into action, speculating or claiming that the president had intended to fling an obscene gesture of disrespect towards his Italian host.
What none of those accounts included, though, was even a token explanation of why Trump was purportedly doing that or how their allegations made sense. Was the U.S. president, as some claimed in the astronaut incident, responding to what Gentiloni had just said? If so, what exactly was it about "Good morning, bonjour" that so outraged Trump?
Furthermore, Trump had been chatting and sharing a joke with Gentiloni and Macron just a few seconds earlier and did so again later on:
February 2017 — Black History Month
On Feb. 1, 2017, shortly after his inauguration, Trump hosted a Black History Month celebration at the White House. Before the meeting began in earnest, and in the midst of a clearly very cordial atmosphere, Trump twice brandished his middle finger.
First, the president quickly rubbed from his right eyebrow to his right temple just after sitting down at the table. He didn't look at anyone in particular, and the only discernible conversation immediately before his gesture involved a woman (not visible on camera) saying "You know chivalry isn't dead" to the laughter of several attendees, including Trump himself and his former adviser Omarosa Manigault Newman, who was seated immediately to the president's right.
It's not clear to what the woman was referring, but it's possible that Vice President Mike Pence had just pulled out a chair for her, in a gesture of what might be described as old-fashioned etiquette. (Trump made the same gesture for Manigault Newman before he took his own seat).
Seven seconds later, Trump again ran his right middle finger parallel with his hairline, starting at his eyebrow, after blowing upwards towards his hair. He then immediately followed up those movements by rubbing his right eyebrow with his right index finger:
The atmosphere in the room before the meeting was visibly and clearly very warm, with attendees chatting, smiling, and laughing together. The comment that immediately preceded Trump's first middle finger gesture was a light-hearted remark, possibly about Pence's "chivalry," which prompted laughter from Trump and others.
The second time the president rubbed his face, he first blew upwards towards his hair — which strongly suggests his hair was bothering him or a few strands were falling out of place, a perfectly plausible explanation for the movements he made with his middle finger.
Taking all of this into account, it's therefore hard to explain how or why Trump was supposedly tossing out birds, one after the other, or whom he was targeting with them -- nor to identity the particular "strong emotion" that motivated such purported obscene gestures.
Nonetheless, several commentators presented the gestures as just that, with Stephen Colbert joking that the second instance was Trump's "strong message to the African-American community," while another YouTube video suggested the birds were aimed at "the media":
In order for non-verbal gestures to have a clear meaning, an individual has to use them in at least a slightly consistent way. We know that Trump does sometimes use his middle finger to touch his face, typically rubbing from his eyebrow to his temple, parallel with his hair line.
He has done this while he himself speaks, while others speak, while smiling, while nodding in agreement, while holding a neutral expression, while speaking to an ally whose comments are consistent with his own, while being confronted with the criticism of a close friend, and while hearing the plans of another world leader with whom he enjoys a complicated relationship. He has rubbed his face with his middle finger while an astronaut corrected his error, while a federal agency administrator said nothing in particular, and while another world leader said "Good morning."
In reality, the only consistent feature of these incidents is the inconsistency of the circumstances and context that surrounded them. As such, it appears doubtful that Trump typically brandishes his middle finger as a way of expressing disdain or anger or disrespect. A far more plausible explanation appears to be simply that, from time to time, the president's hairline or eyebrows or skin cause him irritation or discomfort, and he feels compelled to scratch that itch.