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What really happened in that photo of Kellyanne Conway squatting on the Oval Office couch

Oval office etiquette. (AP Photo/Pablo Martinez Monsivais)
By Selina Cheng
Published Last updated This article is more than 2 years old.

An unusual photo of Kellyanne Conway perched on a couch in the Oval Office appeared late last night (Feb. 27), immediately drawing thousands of critical comments from users across Facebook and Twitter.

In the AP photo, US president Donald Trump is seen standing behind his desk, surrounded by leaders of historically black US colleges and universities for a photo-op, AP reports. But the obvious focal point is his counselor Conway, squatting on an Oval Office couch. Her shoes are out of the frame—perhaps on the couch!—and she appears to be checking her phone.

Oval office etiquette. (AP Photo/Pablo Martinez Monsivais)

The image was immediately decried as a show of disrespect toward Trump’s assembled guests, and even to the office itself.

However, a second picture shot by Aude Guerrucci in the room suggests that Conway was mid-motion, likely looking for an angle to snap a smartphone picture.

Here’s why. (EPA/Pool photo/Aude Guerrucci)

So how did a perhaps unsightly but innocent gesture provoke such internet outrage? Considering just the original image, Florida-based body language expert Joe Navarro says Conway’s posture does appear “boorish,” in a context that demanded respect and solemnness. “Everyone is properly standing, they’re all very solemn, but here she was sitting there as if she was in a college dorm,” he tells Quartz.

It’s not so much Conway herself, Navarro notes, as the asymmetry in body language between her and the rest of the crowd: “You’re in concert, in harmony with them [when you mirror their behavior.] When you don’t mirror their behavior, you’re not of the same mindset,” he explains.

In a context as revered as the Oval Office, even the tiniest gesture can make waves. In 2013, then-president Barack Obama was photographed with his feet up on his desk, spurring the conservative Washington Times to claim, ”Obama’s foot on Oval Office desk sends shockwaves around the world.” (Former presidents George W. Bush, Gerald Ford, and Jimmy Carter have all also been photographed with their feet up on the same desk.)

A better choreographed photo-op of Trump, Conway and a large group of African-American leaders signing an order to support black colleges would have been good PR, portraying a controversial administration responding to accusations of racism and white nationalism. But the American peoples’ reaction to this awkward scene reflects precisely how wary many are, when it comes to the Trump administration’s respect for the president’s office and for America’s tradition of diversity.

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