Political Secrets Revealed By Lip Readers

Lip reading is not a science. In fact, it's not even particularly accurate. According to The New York Times, top lip readers can only make out about 30% to 45% of all words said. But maybe, just maybe, lip readers have managed to pick out some juicy secrets over the years. And with the rise of social media over the last two decades, even if the mainstream media has misgivings about sharing unreliable lip reads, a viral tweet or TikTok video is guaranteed to attempt it — just look at the people who tried to decipher a frantic Nancy Pelosi phone call on Twitter in September 2021.

Lip readers have tried their hand at deciphering the mouth movements of world leaders around the globe, from David Cameron to Donald Trump. Though most of what politicians say in public is fairly banal, lip reading has also occasionally led to political scandal. Like handwriting analysis or body language interpretation, lip reading should be taken with a grain of salt — but isn't that half the fun?

Did Donald Trump regret letting Ted Cruz make a speech?

Even as Donald Trump accepted the Republican nomination for president in 2016, his party was not united behind him. His biggest rivals for the nomination, John Kasich and Ted Cruz, didn't leave the race until early May (via FiveThirtyEight), and even at the time of Cruz's speech during the Republican National Convention, Cruz — the second place finisher — did not endorse Trump, instead urging Republicans to "vote [their] conscience" as his exhortations were met with widespread boos from the audience.

One of the people in the audience was the future president, Trump himself. During Cruz's speech, Trump was filmed sitting down next to his daughter Ivanka and whispering in her ear. "Do you think I made a mistake?" he said, at least according to lip reader Larry Wenig, who spoke about the incident to "Inside Edition" (via Yahoo! Entertainment). If it was a mistake, it didn't cost Trump too dearly — Cruz endorsed Trump that September, according to The Texas Tribune, and Trump, of course, won the election.

Did Jeremy Corbyn and David Cameron call Theresa May stupid?

In 2017, David Cameron, the former British prime minister, was filmed speaking extemporaneously at a ceremony unveiling a war memorial. The audio isn't clear, but forensic lip reader Tina Lannin told the BBC that he said "breaking a manifesto promise — how stupid can you get?" This would have referred to his successor, fellow Tory Theresa May, and her budget that relied on tax increases, according to the Telegraph, breaking the manifesto promise that Cameron, when he led the party, had previously made.

That wouldn't be the last time Theresa May would be called "stupid" in a lip reading interpretation (poor prime minister!). Labour opposition leader Jeremy Corbyn was also accused of calling her a "stupid woman" under his breath the following year, during a discussion with the prime minister over her Brexit plan. He later claimed he had said "stupid people," according to the BBC. And later that year, a lip reader interpreted Theresa May as arguing with European leader Jean-Claude Juncker over whether he called her "nebulous," according to the Mirror.

Did Justin Trudeau reward himself with wine for the G7 summit?

Lip readers don't always catch politicians insulting each other — sometimes, they're just joking around. Take the 2021 G7 summit. British Prime Minister Boris Johnson called U.S. President Joe Biden "mad" after Biden joked about wanting to jump in the icy water of the British seaside, according to one lip reader for the Cornwall Times, and Johnson apparently chatted with Queen Elizabeth over the awkwardness of meeting other world leaders. Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau apparently wanted to get in on the jokes. As the world leaders met for a photo shoot, lip reader Nicola Hickling thought she saw him say to President Biden: "We could have some port after." Biden seemed to agree this was a good idea.

Look, world summits must get a little boring. Can you blame a relatively young leader like Trudeau for wanting to get the party started?

Did Michelle Obama insult the American flag?

And now, a warning about the reliability of lip reading. During the rise of Barack Obama and his subsequent administration, it became popular, among a certain kind of conservative, to share stories about Michelle Obama that painted her as a kind of anti-American radical leftist, however implausible that depiction might be. In 2008, for instance, rumors spread that there existed a tape of her lambasting "Whitey," as ridiculous as that sounds now ascribed to the popular author of "Becoming" (via New York Magazine). And in 2011, it was speculated, based on lip reading, that the then-first lady said "all this for a damn flag" during the flag folding at a 9/11 memorial ceremony. One chain email even said that a lip reading instructor at a school for the deaf "confirmed" it.

In fact, that interpretation never happened, according to a spokesperson from the school (via PolitiFact). Though it's unclear what Michelle Obama said in that specific clip, PolitiFact pointed out there were other interpretations by lip readers, including "it's amazing how they fold that flag."