As imagination-firing, meme-spawning images go, the visual of President Trump and King Salman of Saudi Arabia touching a radiant globe seemed impossible to beat—until the reports and photographs emerged of the Trumps at the Vatican on Wednesday morning.
For this was the day that Pope Francis fat-shamed Donald Trump.
Up until then, First Lady Melania Trump had looked particularly uncomfortable at the Vatican, though she appeared to lighten up when the Pope noted her husband’s girth.
“What do you feed him? Potizza?” the Pope asked Mrs. Trump, referring to a Slovenian dessert.
"Potizza? Yes,” she replied.
"Pizza!” Trump chimed in, assuming he was in on the joke.
The photographs of their encounter told a story of either extreme stiffness or awkwardness or both, and social media had a field day with them—especially a group shot of the Pope, Melania, Donald and Ivanka Trump. President Trump was captured as the only figure smiling.
A dour-looking Pope Francis stood awkwardly beside the Trump family, as if keeping a safe distance from the president and his clan. Trump, beaming, looked the consummate phony salesman, while Melania Trump—wearing a black dress and a black lace mantilla draped on her head like a napkin—looked both shell-shocked and slightly peeved to be overshadowed by Ivanka Trump’s more fashionable, voluminous veil. (Ivanka looked just as serious and shell-shocked as her stepmother.)
The optics of the First Family’s meeting with Pope Francis were endlessly entertaining and revealing, from the moment His Holiness shook President Trump’s hand, stone-faced as he held the president’s gaze—a quiet assertion of dominance—before sizing him up, at once wary and unimpressed.
Social media coverage of the images contrasted the Pope’s taciturn demeanor alongside Trump with a far more relaxed and happy-looking meeting with President Obama.
Trump seemed eager-to-please: “This is such a great honor,” he said, a broad smile frozen on his face, after taking a seat at the pontiff’s desk. The usually animated Trump leaned in towards the Pope but held back from gesticulating, as if trying to match His Holiness’ slow and statesman-like way of communicating.
This is an unnatural rhythm for Trump The Salesman, and it showed. (The president may have also been distracted by the splendor the Pope’s digs, and imagining how he could redecorate the White House to look more like the Vatican.)
At some point during their choreographed, 30-minute questionable meeting of minds, the president presented the Pope with five custom-bound, gold-accented books by Martin Luther King Jr. (“I think you will enjoy them,” he said).
The Pope in turn gifted Trump a symbol of peace: an olive tree-shaped medallion by a Roman artist, explaining that he offered the medallion “with all hope that you may become an olive tree to make peace.”
The president, who just released a budget proposal that would defund the National Endowment of the Arts, accepted the artwork and replied: “We can use peace.”
President Trump said goodbye to the Pope in front of cameras. “I won’t forget…I won’t forget what you said,” he promised, as if telegraphing the importance of their meeting to the press.
“He is something,” Trump said to reporters of Pope Francis. “We’re liking Italy very, very much and it was an honor to be with the Pope.”
As usual, the president’s declarative statements were heavy on adjectives and short on content. All at once, Trump—who was raised Presbyterian—seemed humbled by the Pope, out of his element, yet proud of himself for meeting the all-powerful Pope as the all-powerful POTUS.
A day full of strange optics left social media with one final image to parse before the president and his wife departed Rome. The First Lady, who has batted away Trump's hand-holding attempts on multiple occasions during their first foreign trip, conspicuously grasped her husband’s hand when they visited the Sistine Chapel. She was still wearing that deathly black mantilla on her head.