Donald Trump, Ryan Lochte and the Politics of Contrition | NBC 5 Dallas-Fort Worth
2016 Rio Olympic Games

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Donald Trump, Ryan Lochte and the Politics of Contrition

"It's essentially, 'I'm sorry you don't understand me," said Wayne Fields of Washington University

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    NEWSLETTERS

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    Ryan Lochte and Donald Trump.

    Add two fresh entries to the increasingly popular genre of non-apology apologies. 

    In a span of 15 hours, politician Donald Trump and Olympian Ryan Lochte both coughed up carefully crafted words of contrition — each without fully owning up to exactly what he'd done wrong.

    Trump, the serial insulter of the 2016 presidential campaign, said he'd sometimes said "the wrong thing" and acknowledged that his words had "caused personal pain."

    Lochte, the gold medal-winning swimmer, said he should have been "more careful and candid" in describing an incident during the Rio Olympics in which he claimed to have been the victim of an armed robbery that police said wasn't really an armed robbery at all.

    "What both are trying to do is take a topic out of the news and turn the page," said Kathleen Hall Jamieson, director of the Annenberg Public Policy Center at the University of Pennsylvania and an expert in the politics of rhetoric. "Neither one of them has done it in the classic form required of an apology."

    These days, laments Wayne Fields, a professor who studies political rhetoric at Washington University in St. Louis, popular culture is churning out apologies "that really suggest the problem is with you — not me — or the problem is with circumstances that I can't control."

    "It's essentially, 'I'm sorry you don't understand me,'" said Fields, calling it part of "the phenomenon of the public relations apology."

    Here's a closer look at Trump, Lochte, and the delicate politics of contrition:

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    TRUMP

    "As you know, I'm not a politician. I've worked in business, created a great company, created lots of jobs, rebuilding neighborhoods, that's what I've done all of my adult life. I've never wanted to learn the language of the insiders. And I've never been politically correct. ... Truthfully, it takes far too much time and can often make it more difficult to achieve total victory. Sometimes, in the heat of debate and speaking on a multitude of issues, you don't choose the right words or you say the wrong thing. I have done that. And, believe it or not, I regret it. And I do regret it, particularly where it may have caused personal pain. Too much is at stake for us to be consumed with these issues. But one thing I can promise you is this, I will always tell you the truth."

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    Trump's remarks, read from a teleprompter during a speech Thursday night, were part of an effort to reset a campaign that's slipped in the polls and lacking direction as the candidate picks one distracting fight after another. The candidate who in the past has declared he prefers "not to regret anything" apparently made the calculus that a little remorse would be good for the soul — and his campaign.

    Linguists found several things lacking in Trump's blanket mea culpa, starting with specifics about what he did wrong and to whom. Also, his contrition was prefaced by a litany of self-congratulatory statements designed to puff himself up and lessen the humbling aspects of his regrets. Further, Trump managed to suggest that part of the problem somehow rested with those who felt injured by his remarks. Finally, his declaration that he'll continue to tell the truth suggested maybe he didn't really regret what he'd said at all.

    Robin Lakoff, a retired linguistics professor at the University of California, Berkeley, says Trump's underlying message was: "If you have to have this politically correct expression of regret, I'll give it to you, but really, you're the one in the wrong.' ... Donald Trump is being magnanimous to the poor, sick person."

    Jamieson, listing some of those targeted by Trump's verbal volleys, added: "The question is to whom is he apologizing? Is this an apology to Megyn Kelly? Is this an apology to John McCain? Is this an apology to the Khan family? Is this an apology to Hillary Clinton?

    Fields, for his part, said Trump's bottom line seemed to be: "If this is what I need to do to win, sure, I'll apologize."

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    LOCHTE

    "I want to apologize for my behavior last weekend — for not being more careful and candid in how I described the events of that early morning and for my role in taking the focus away from the many athletes fulfilling their dreams of participating in the Olympics. I waited to share these thoughts until it was confirmed that the legal situation was addressed and it was clear that my teammates would be arriving home safely.

    "It's traumatic to be out late with your friends in a foreign country — with a language barrier — and have a stranger point a gun at you and demand money to let you leave, but regardless of the behavior of anyone else that night, I should have been much more responsible in how I handled myself and for that am sorry to my teammates, my fans, my fellow competitors, my sponsors, and the hosts of this great event. I am very proud to represent my country in Olympic competition and this was a situation that could and should have been avoided. I accept responsibility for my role in this happening and have learned some valuable lessons."

    "I am grateful for my USA Swimming teammates and the USOC, and appreciate all of the efforts of the IOC, the Rio '16 Host Committee, and the people of Brazil who welcomed us to Rio and worked so hard to make sure that these Olympic Games provided a lifetime of great new memories. There has already been too much said and too many valuable resources dedicated to what happened last weekend, so I hope we spend our time celebrating the great stories and performances of these Games and look ahead to celebrating future successes."

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    Lochte's statement, posted on his Instagram account Friday, was designed to quell the global firestorm that erupted after his claims about being the victim of an armed robbery outraged his Brazilian hosts and were sharply disputed by that nation's police.

    The Olympic gold medalist, who initially said he'd been robbed at gunpoint, held to his view that a stranger pointed a gun at him and demanded money. But Brazilian police said he and three other swimmers vandalized a gas station bathroom while drunk and were confronted by armed security guards.

    Lochte does explicitly say he's apologizing. But linguists note that as with Trump, he's fuzzy about what exactly he's sorry for. There's no admission that he didn't tell the truth or of any attempt at a cover-up. He throws out factors designed to mitigate blame: he was far from home, he didn't speak the language. He makes reference to "the behavior" of others, suggesting he's not the only one blame. He works in prominent mention of the Olympic Games, where he brought home gold. And he makes the case it's time to change the subject.

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    "It's one of those mistakes-were-made apologies," Fields said. "It doesn't take full responsibility."

    The key unanswered question, Jamieson said, is "Did you lie to us?"

    Lakoff credits Lochte for sounding "truly penitent," but said he still manages to "work the apology thing around to 'Look at how wonderful I am" with all his talk about the successes at the Rio Games.

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    Overall, Lakoff said, Trump and Lochte offered "two different ways of weaseling out of making a true apology."

    "These are both masterly ways of talking out of one corner of your mouth but indirectly implying something else out of the other," he said.