By John Krull
INDIANAPOLIS – Donald Trump doesn’t make mistakes.
At least, he doesn’t acknowledge them.
If something goes wrong or doesn’t proceed as he planned, he either pretends otherwise or he finds someone else to blame.
John Krull, publisher, TheStatehouseFile.com
He seems to think this makes him look strong. He’s wrong about that. It does the opposite.
His inability to acknowledge error costs him a great deal. He misses opportunities to neutralize critics and opponents. He throws away chances to endear himself to undecideds. And he traps himself in untenable positions again and again and again.
Consider two recent flaps.
During his controversial Fourth of July extravaganza, he screwed up during his speech. He praised America’s revolutionary army for shutting down airports. The problem, of course, is that the American revolution took place more than a century before the airplane was invented.
Because the error was so egregious, it swallowed up every bit of attention. That meant few people noticed that the president had tried to do something his opponents said he couldn’t – deliver an address designed to be unifying in tone and message.
Trump could have disarmed the situation by acknowledging the misfire with a joke – something like, “One problem with being president is that when you have a brain fade, everyone notices” – but he didn’t. Instead he blamed it on a teleprompter miscue.
That didn’t save him from looking foolish. It just suggested that he was both comfortable with sloppy staff work and that he would read anything put in front of him, no matter how dumb it sounded.
Instead of defusing the situation, he escalated it – and launched about a million memes of George Washington as the Tom Cruise character in an anachronistic “Top Gun.”
Instead of sharing a laugh with the rest of America, he turned himself into the butt of the joke.
Then there was the dustup with the British ambassador to the United States. In a confidential memo that somehow was leaked, the ambassador said uncomplimentary things about the president’s intelligence, attention span and integrity.
Again, President Trump could have responded by either ignoring the ambassador’s comments or by making light of them – “guess he’s not eager to be a member of my fan club” or some such.
Instead, he lashed out at the man and demanded his recall. The ambassador resigned.
Thus, the president made a martyr of the man and sent a signal to the rest of the world that he has skin so thin it dissolves upon the lightest touch.
In each case, Trump, as he so often does, managed to take what should have been, at most, a blip and turn it into a problem. He took himself and his administration off message and told everyone that the way to divert this president is to distract him with a silly quarrel from which he gains nothing even if he wins the argument.
Compare that with the way Democratic presidential hopeful and South Bend Mayor Pete Buttigieg dealt with a tough question in the recent Democratic debate about race relations and police-action shootings. It was a question that needed to be asked. Buttigieg’s record in those areas merits both scrutiny and criticism.
Instead of running away from the question or lashing out at the questioner, Buttigieg assumed responsibility for the problem. He said South Bend didn’t have a better integrated police force and a community more sensitive to issues of race because he “didn’t get it done.”
By owning his failure, Buttigieg didn’t stop discussion of it. But he made it much harder for opponents and critics to argue that he’s unaware of the problem or that he’s not operating in good faith.
I do not know why Donald Trump cannot acknowledge error or even laugh at himself every now and then. Maybe he doesn’t know the why of that himself.
But I do know this. A man who cannot own up to his mistakes cannot learn from them.
That’s why this president finds himself in the same sort of mess again and again and again.
John Krull is director of Franklin College’s Pulliam School of Journalism and publisher of TheStatehouseFile.com, a news website powered by Franklin College journalism students.