President Trump and German Chancellor Angela Merkel participate in a joint news conference in the East Room of the White House, on Friday. (Jabin Botsford/The Washington Post)
At least two members of President Trump’s own party have now suggested the president has some apologizing to do. Speaking with reporters on Friday, Rep. Tom Cole (R-Okla.), speaking on Trump’s claim that former president Barack Obama tapped his phone during the election, said “frankly, unless you can produce some pretty compelling proof, then I think that President Obama is owed an apology.”
Then on Sunday, Rep. Will Hurd (R-Tex.) said he agreed. “I think it helps with our allies. We’ve got to make sure that we’re all working together. We live in a very dangerous world, and we can’t do this alone,” he said. “It’s not just sorry to the president, but also to the U.K. for the claims or the intimation that the U.K. was involved in this as well. It doesn’t hurt. And it takes away from the rest of his agenda.”
Yet if history is any test, an apology seems unlikely to happen. As any casual observer of the 2016 campaign and the early days of the Trump presidency have seen, Trump has no fondness for expressions of remorse. For that matter, he doesn’t even like to say he misspoke.
That “incapacity to admit error,” as The Washington Post’s Dan Balz has called it, showed up repeatedly in recent days. Despite no evidence thus far to support his claims that his phones had been tapped by Obama — House Intelligence Committee leaders said Sunday new documents provided no proof — Trump continued to say last week he would be proved right, claiming, “I think you’re going to find some very interesting items coming to the forefront over the next two weeks” in an interview with Fox News’s Tucker Carlson.
Then, after his spokesman repeated an unsubstantiated claim made by a legal analyst on Fox News that Britain’s intelligence agency had spied on him, Trump and his representatives said they did not apologize to representatives from the British government. “I don’t think we regret anything,” press secretary Sean Spicer told reporters. When asked about the issue in a news conference with German Chancellor Angela Merkel, Trump said, “We said nothing. All we did was quote a certain very talented legal mind who was the one responsible for saying that on television. I didn’t make an opinion on it.”
Would it really not “hurt” Trump to apologize, as Hurd suggests? Research by leadership scholars generally shows that apologizing can be beneficial. Contrary to the conventional wisdom that apologies signify weakness, people see leaders who apologize as more transformational, or capable of inspiring, motivating and influencing the people they lead. Other research has shown that apologizing leads to better well-being among a boss’s employees — and themselves. But their perceptions depend greatly on the effectiveness of the apology and who gives it. Research has shown that how sincerely an apology is perceived is dependent on whether leaders were seen as trustworthy and caring beforehand. And how it’s received depends on the expressions on the leader’s face, as well as what leaders do and don’t say in their apologies. In other words, Trump could benefit from apologizing — but it will have a lot to do with how he says it — and who’s listening.