Most people have enough difficulty apologizing for their behavior in the moment. Apology becomes even more complicated when it comes to apologizing for events that occurred in the past but are only recently disclosed.
That’s the situation facing Donald Trump. The Washington Post disclosed a 2005 video and audio of Donald Trump making lewd, misogynistic, and profane comments about women. The political world, Republicans as well as Democrats, exploded in revulsion. Trump needed a response and in due course he offered two.
He missed the key ingredient to effective apologies for past offenses.
Both statements were wholly inadequate to the task and likely made matters worse. That’s because addressing an offense that took place 11 years ago requires a different apology than an apology for an offense that took place yesterday. In retrospect, it would have been better to think through the demands of an apology for a recently disclosed past offense.
This was the text of Trump’s first apology statement:
This was locker room banter, a private conversation that took place many years ago. Bill Clinton has said far worse to me on the golf course — not even close. I apologize if anyone was offended.
This is wholly ineffective. The statement violates three fundamental laws of apology: don’t minimize, don’t make it conditional, and don’t make it about anyone else. This first statement is all about justifying the offense and locating the offense not on the words Trump uttered but on the supposed sensitivities of the offended.
Trump must have realized how sour this “apology” was because within hours he then posted a video statement.
It’s a little better. The statement includes three profound admissions: “I said it, I was wrong, and I apologize.”
He should have stopped there
Instead he undermines the apology by making the apology more about himself than those he offended.
Then he claims something that strains credibility when he claims that “Anyone who knows me knows these words don’t reflect who I am.” And then he makes a promise no human can deliver:
“I pledge to be a better man tomorrow and will never, ever let you down.”
And then he doubles down on the supposed excesses others who have nothing to do with the events in question.
Trump is wrong-headed on every level.
Agree with your critics
The way to frame an apology for a past offense is to agree with your critics. Doing so defuses the incident and puts it in the proper context. By the way, it’s not for the offender to decide what the proper context is. The offended get to decide that.
Trump actually started the apology well:
I’ve never said I’m a perfect person, nor pretended to be someone that I’m not. I’ve said and done things I regret, and the words released today on this more than a decade-old video are one of them.
But he can’t maintain the need to claim complete responsibility.
Anyone who knows me knows these words don’t reflect who I am.
By resisting and defending himself, Trump guarantees that the conflict will lead the headlines. The media thrive on conflict. The moment he surrenders, the media will go on to the next conflict.
Will there be a cost to Trump?
Of course. Apology always incurs a cost. It’s just less costly than the alternatives.
So a much better response to the 2005 incident might have followed these lines:
The language I used in 2005 reveals a vulgar and entitled man. I was that man. I look at the evidence of my inexcusable lack of character with embarrassment and revulsion, because I recognize him as myself.
I accept that I displayed attitudes towards women that are nothing less than hateful. I think I have evolved since then. I certainly want to distance myself from that man, but I must be honest: that man is not as remote as I sometimes hope he is or want him to be.
This campaign has revealed that I am far from a perfect person and there are probably dozens of other such examples of my behavior waiting to be revealed. I regret it all. The language I used in 2005 was vile and wholly inappropriate. I have no excuses.
I apologize without reservation because I recognize my words and actions were offensive to so many people on every level. I let you all down. My goal is to be a better man than that. I intend to be accountable for everything I do or say. With the help of my wife and children, I pledge to conduct myself as one who recognizes the worth and decency of every human being.
Apology sends the clearest signal that you have the strength of character to reconcile yourself with the truth. By acknowledging, naming, and ultimately accepting our mistakes, we embrace our humility and make room for our true selves, imperfect and all too human, just like everyone else. That’s Trump’s best course.