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What "Criminal Minds" Tells About Donald Trump's Sniffs

Just what do those very audible sniffles during the second presidential debate reveal about Donald Trump? And what do they have to do with poker and fictional F.B.I. profilers?

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"It's a tell," I announced to my husband.

Donald Trump had just punctuated the second presidential debate with a deeply audible sniff. Again.

That physical stutter reminded me of the way my knee bounces up and down when I'm antsy and frustrated. Or the way my husband's fingers beat a tattoo on his thigh when his knee hurts (and he doesn't want to admit it).

What's a Tell?

Forbes recently listed 11 possible causes for Trump's heavy sniffing, which included such mundane items as something up his nose and allergies to the more absurd possibilities (pregnancy and cocaine). With the exception of one, all were physical in nature. But item #6 was "Trump may have a tic," which author Bruce Y. Lee went on to explain as an involuntary muscle movement that could be triggered by stress and anxiety.

I agree—the sniff isn't a tic. It's a tell, which takes its definition from poker:

"…because poker is a game of human interaction, we sometimes receive clues from other players, based on changes in their betting patterns or their physical demeanor, which indicates the strength or weakness of their hand. These are called 'poker tells.'" David Sasseman

A tell, that physical give-away, can help detect a lie. According to "Spy the Line: Former CIA Officers Teach You How to Detect Deception" by Philip Houston, Michael Floyd, Susan Carnicero, and Don Tennant, clearing the throat or swallowing prior to a response can reveal that "physiologically, the question might have created a spike in anxiety, which can cause discomfort or dryness in the mouth and throat."

At this point, I'm coming clean to admit I'm obsessively working my way through all 11 seasons of "Criminal Minds," a procedural drama about a team of F.B.I. profilers who track down serial killers, so I'm seeing the world through Dr. Spencer Reid's lovably nerdy eyes here when I assert that the Donald has put his unique Trump brand on a tell.

What Does the Trump Sniff Mean?

I went back to review the debate, focusing on those sniffs.

In the first two responses, a definite pattern emerged. The sniffs become more frequent the longer he speaks. And they seem to occur when Trump veers off topic. In other words, the sniffs appear to tell that he's intentionally diverting from the topic. The bigger the diversion, the more pronounced the sniff.

Taking a cue from "Spy the Line," I focused on statements that followed a sniff. Like throat clearing, sniffs provide a pause, a split second of physical gathering in preparation for what is to come. The chest puffs out, the face tights, and then he dives in.

Trump takes in that audible burst of air before something he desperately wants us to believe.

Take a look at minutes 45 through 47:11 of the NBC News video. Martha Raddatz's question: whether Trump believes he has changed from the 59-year-old man making lewd comments in that infamous 2005 recording. In his two-minute response, discusses Bill Clinton's behavior with women, President Clinton's impeachment, and Hillary Clinton's treatment of various women as a lawyer and spouse.

Trump never answers the question about whether he's changed. He deflects.

He sniffs 15 times.

Several sentences within those two minutes are punctuated by multiple sniffs. The loudest precedes this statement: "Don't tell me about words. I am, I absolutely apologize for those words…"

I confess to not having the stamina required to review, record, and analyze all 90 minutes of sniffs. That would take an extremely dedicated investigative reporter.

But I will watch the third debate closely for that Trumpian Tell. It will certainly help me sniff out the truth in his statements.

Do Your Own Sniffing Here:

Watch the NBC News video of the entire second presidential debate

Read PolitiFact's annotated transcript of the second presidential debate

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