BRUSSELS — As President Trump prepared to leave the NATO summit meeting in his disgruntled wake, the story of his visit could be told in the tight smiles, stiff handshakes and averted gazes he exchanged with the people who are supposed to be some of his closest European allies.
With few leaders willing to publicly push back against Mr. Trump’s aggressive haggling over military spending, observers were left to study his body language, as well as that of his allies and aides. At times, attempts to decipher the mood of the president and other heads of state felt akin to studying a very sophisticated and multilingual high school cafeteria.
For starters, there appeared to be cliques, with a grimacing Mr. Trump often on the outs. As leaders prepared for a so-called (and perhaps dysfunctional) family photo, Mr. Trump’s contemporaries walked ahead and chatted together while the president hung back with Recep Tayyip Erdogan, the Turkish president.
During a group photo shoot, leaders seemed to glance at Mr. Trump out of the corners of their eyes, if they looked at him at all. The coverage of the icy-appearing exchanges caught the attention of at least two high-profile White House aides, who were quick to declare the analysis “fake news.”
“Fake News Media outlets FAIL to mention the photo of President @realDonaldTrump looking up toward the sky with others,” Dan Scavino, the president’s social media director, wrote on Twitter, “is that of an impressive flyover of helicopters from 13 Alied Nations as seen here off the reflection of the @NATO building. Way to go FAKE NEWS!”
Mr. Scavino’s criticism was also shared by Sarah Huckabee Sanders, the White House press secretary. On Thursday, the White House had no immediate comment on the photogenic qualities of the president’s relationships.
Aside from awkward group photographs, there was the usual handshake analysis of Mr. Trump’s greeting with allies, including President Emmanuel Macron of France. Last month, Mr. Macron gripped the president’s hand so tightly that he left a thumbprint.
(The verdict this time? Firm, as usual.)
Mr. Trump’s tendency to be good-natured in front of his allies but aggressive behind their backs added an element of chaos and confusion when leaders went before the cameras.
While seated in front of the news media, the president gave a cheery readout of his discussion with Chancellor Angela Merkel of Germany, whose country he’d eviscerated hours earlier at a breakfast she hadn’t attended. Seated next to him, the German chancellor did not echo the president’s cheery comments about their “very, very good relationship.”
In the glare of the spotlight, even the president’s aides fell under a microscope. John F. Kelly, the White House chief of staff, looked particularly pained during a breakfast at which Mr. Trump said Germany was “captive” to Russia. For months, rumors about Mr. Kelly’s frustrations with his job have feverishly circulated through Washington. (Vanity Fair added to them just two days ago.)
According to one senior White House official, who described private conversations only on the condition of anonymity, rumors of Mr. Kelly’s demise are exaggerated. Mr. Kelly has so far outlasted constant speculation about his ouster because he is able to intervene in staffing dramas and to face an often frustrated president, the official said.
But at NATO, Mr. Trump’s gruff interactions with allies on Wednesday underscored the degree to which Mr. Kelly lacks influence over how the president behaves. When it came to the video of Mr. Kelly’s tight-lipped expressions, the White House told The Washington Post that there was no veiled frustration to decipher: The retired general was simply disappointed in the breakfast offerings.
As the summit meeting progressed, other leaders grew more pointed about Mr. Trump’s habit of reversing course and pulling out sharp elbows after charming his contemporaries in person.
“Trump was in a good mood,” Xavier Bettel, the prime minister of Luxembourg, told reporters about the president’s behavior at a NATO dinner. “He said Europe is a continent he appreciates, and which has to develop its military spending further.”
“But,” the prime minister added, “he has Wi-Fi on the plane, so we will have to see.”