Leaked audio from 2005 of Donald Trump saying “you can grab [women] by the pussy” was shocking. What happened next was maybe even more so: He issued an apology.
Except he didn’t apologize. Instead, he tried to claim his own behavior is normal, “just locker room,” talk and he is sorry if anyone is offended, but he’s not sorry for his words.
“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,” Trump said in a statement released by his campaign. “I apologize if anyone was offended."
Trump was responding to a newly released secret video exposing a private conversation he had about women in 2005, in which he detailed the liberties afforded to a male celebrity: “When you’re a star, they let you do it. You can do anything. Grab ’em by the pussy. You can do anything.”
For a man who rarely apologizes — let alone recognizes any personal wrongdoing — surprisingly Trump’s statement acknowledged not only what he said but also that people would be offended by it. And while, yes, Trump did use the phrase “I apologize,” to be clear, this was not an apology.
Rather, “Trump is offering a non-apology here,” according to Edwin Battistella, a linguist at Southern Oregon University and the author Sorry About That: The Language of Public Apology — an apology expert.
In other words, Trump’s response to the video was the exact opposite of an apology: It normalized an extraordinarily degrading kind of banter, attempted to deflect the attention to a rival public figure in Bill Clinton, and used a conditional “if anyone was offended,” placing “the onus on others to react — to claim that they were offended or not,” Battistella points out. “A morally serious apology would respond to the content of way he said — demeaning women — and the effects of his comments.”
Trump doesn’t like to apologize — in fact, he rarely does
Trump’s statement is the kind of response typical for celebrities and politicians attempting to deflect the moral subjects of their wrongdoings, Battistella said.
But it is particularly poignant with Trump — a candidate whose presidential campaign has been defined by offensive comments, the resurfacing of past, often image-damaging transgressions, and a series of vague and potentially harmful insinuations (like that time he sort of made a joke that gun rights activists could shoot Hillary Clinton).
Despite all of this, Trump has rarely been known to offer a genuine apology.
Instead, when attacked for his gaffes, he digs his heels deeper, starting feuds with people online or spinning wild excuses for his comments.
In this case, he was “reframing the comments as ‘private, as ‘banter,’ and as a past action to try to lessen the impact, and bringing Bill Clinton into the discussion as a type of distraction,” Battistella explained.
For Trump, this is a strategy. When pushed on his shortcomings or his own failings, he tries to deflect on others. It’s sorry behavior, but it’s not an apology.