Starting with Trump, let's make apologies great again

Politicians need to be more forthcoming in saying sorry

epa08608299 US President Donald J. Trump gestures as he walks on the South Lawn of the White House after arriving on Marine One in Washington, DC, USA, 16 August 2020.  EPA/Stefani Reynolds / POOL

Patience, the old adage has it, is a virtue. And it seem patience can pay off – eventually. A White House reporter for Huffington Post, S V Date, says he waited several years to ask Donald Trump the one question last week that he felt went to the heart of the Trump presidency:

“Mr President, after three and a half years (in office) do you regret at all, all the lying you’ve done to the American people?”

Mr Trump appeared puzzled.

“All the what?” he said.

The reporter persisted: “All the lying, all the dishonesties.”

The president asked for clarification: “That who has done?”

“You have done,” Date responded, but Mr Trump cut him off, didn’t answer and turned to another reporter who asked a question about taxes.

This is revealing for many reasons. Why had no one plucked up the courage to ask Mr Trump about lying before? Why did the next reporter, (the one who asked about taxes) or the one after that, or the one after that, not ask the same question until the President recognised this is how he is seen round the world?

As noted in this column before, every few months The Washington Post "Factchecker" counts what they call Mr Trump's "false or misleading claims." In the latest tally the Trump total was 20,000 falsehoods and his productivity has been increasing.

At the start of his presidency he was averaging a dozen “false or misleading” claims a day. Then in the 14 months leading up to July, with his reelection campaign in full swing and faced with the coronavirus pandemic and the economic dislocation it has caused, Mr Trump upped his game to 23 falsehoods a day. That is a remarkable one lie an hour, with time off for lunch, but no time to sleep.

Given this record, one can see why Mr Trump declined to answer, although it would be refreshing to hear a world leader say something along the lines of: “Look, I am truly sorry if I got anything wrong or misspoke. This is a hugely complicated world and sometimes I over-simplify complex problems or get things wrong or – to be frank – twist the truth. I will try to do better in future.”

But politicians, and not just Mr Trump, very often do not admit errors. When I talked with a former British prime minister about this he said to me that the reason was simple. If he admitted he had messed up on, for example, a new tax or a new motorway project, some reporter would play “Gotcha!” and turn on him and say: “So you admit raising taxes on petrol was wrong – how can we trust you to get anything else right? Where else have you failed miserably?”

I had to admit that this former prime minister had a point. We do live in a “Gotcha!” media culture where sometimes a simple apology is seen as a sign of weakness. I regret that.

To take a current example from Britain, the UK government has refused to accept it has botched the handling of the results of the very important exams taken by teenage students. England’s “A” or “Advanced” level exams are necessary to gain entrance to universities.

Mr Trump upped his game to 23 falsehoods a day. That is a remarkable one lie an hour, with time off for lunch, but no time to sleep

But because of the pandemic this year’s exams could not go ahead and teachers gave predicted grades to the pupils they teach. But using a computer algorithm the government has succeeded in marking down thousands of pupils’ grades in ways that are unfair. The algorithm takes into account previous results from the schools in past years, and this means clever pupils right now in poorer areas served in the past by under-performing schools have been unfairly penalised.

In Scotland, faced with a similar problem, the First Minister Nicola Sturgeon, apologised and changed Scottish government policy to restore the predicted grades. Good. But the Westminster government has not done the same in England, Northern Ireland and Wales.

The bigger point is this: if we want leaders to show empathy with the lives of ordinary people, we ourselves need to show empathy to the leaders themselves.

EDINBURGH, SCOTLAND - AUGUST 13: Nicola Sturgeon MSP First Minister during a Motion of No Confidence debate at Holyrood on August 13, 2020 in Edinburgh, Scotland. (Photo by Fraser Bremner - WPA Pool/Getty Images)

If they apologise, we should be generous and forgiving. There were no easy answers on how to grade pupils for exams without them taking the exams. No government ministers deliberately tried to ruin the education of thousands of teenagers – but they have, and should apologise and change their policy.

Lying (unfortunately) is something we all do occasionally. Have you ever told a friend who cooked you dinner that you enjoyed a meal when you really didn’t or that you like someone’s new hairstyle or new coat when you don’t?

But even if we do all occasionally lie, Mr Trump is in a class of his own – 22,000 falsehoods do not require just an apology. They have damaged the institution of the presidency and only a change of president can repair the damage. The answer to Mr Date’s question is clear: Donald Trump has no regrets and makes no apology.

Gavin Esler is a journalist, author and presenter