Can Trump learn from his mistakes if he never admits to any?
This is, unfortunately, a pressing question at the moment
Every parent has given their children this little speech, on the occasion of some screw-up: It's not whether you made a mistake, because everyone makes mistakes. What matters is whether you learn from what you did wrong.
Something tells me, though, that this little bit of prosaic yet profound parental wisdom was never passed from Fred Trump to his son Donald.
Even this short amount of time into his presidency, is it even possible to imagine Trump saying, "That didn't turn out well. What can we, or I, do differently next time?"
I raise this question as the issue of Trump's first national security adviser, Michael Flynn, comes back into the headlines. Even before we knew about Flynn's strange ties to Russia or the fact that he was secretly acting as a paid agent for the Turkish government while serving as Trump's chief foreign policy adviser during the campaign, some of us were warning that Flynn was an Islamophobe, a conspiracy theorist, and an all-around crackpot.
Yet Trump can't admit that hiring Flynn to be his principal adviser on matters of national security might not have been such a great idea. Instead, he seemed to be arguing that it was actually Barack Obama's fault that he appointed Flynn. "General Flynn was given the highest security clearance by the Obama administration — but the Fake News seldom likes talking about that," Trump tweeted on Monday. That's despite the fact that Obama fired Flynn from his position as head of the Defense Intelligence Agency, and warned Trump in their post-election Oval Office meeting that putting Flynn in a position of influence in the White House was a dangerous thing to do.
But hey, it can't be Trump's fault, right? He doesn't make mistakes. Don't forget that during the campaign, when asked whether he has asked God for forgiveness, instead of giving the standard politician's answer ("Of course — we all need forgiveness at times"), he said, "I am not sure I have. I just go on and try to do a better job from there. I don't think so."
Not that any president likes admitting mistakes, not only because they want to portray themselves in the best possible light at all times, but also because they're worried that any sign of weakness will be used against them. When asked about mistakes, they often sound like someone on a job interview who gets asked to name their greatest weakness and answers that they work too darn hard. But by now, every president should expect the question, particularly since it has tripped up their predecessors. In 2004, George W. Bush got in some trouble when he was asked in a town-hall debate what his three biggest mistakes in office were, and instead of naming any, rambled for a while about why launching the Iraq War had been the right thing to do (though he did allow at the end that "I made some mistakes in appointing people, but I'm not going to name them").
Bush had a particular brand of clueless confidence, one Will Ferrell captured by titling his one-man show impersonating him at the end of that disastrous presidency, "You're Welcome America." But by comparison to Trump, Bush was a model of thoughtful introspection. Barack Obama was actually thoughtful and introspective; when he got asked in 2016 what his worst mistake was, he answered that he didn't adequately prepare for the aftermath of his decision to aid rebels seeking to overthrow Moammar Gadhafi in Libya. It almost certainly weighed heavily on Obama, since all along he had been so concerned about getting sucked into a conflict in the Middle East that would produce unintended consequences.
The presidency is not only a uniquely complex job, it's one in which mistakes are inevitable. When Bush described himself as "The Decider" he was absolutely right, and Obama used to say that the president isn't given easy decisions to make. If they're easy, they're handled at a lower level; only the really tough decisions come all the way to the president. Even so, he has to make dozens of them every day, often with partial or imperfect information to go on.
There will be mistakes, and a smart president will be able to figure out not just what went wrong, but where he personally fell short. Did he fail to ask the question that might have revealed the flaw in a plan? Did he let his biases lead him down the wrong path? Did he think too much about the politics of a choice, or not enough about it? Did he underestimate his opponents or have too much faith in his allies? Was he thinking about the short term at the expense of the long term?
It's possible that Trump thinks a lot about his mistakes in private, while his public insistence of pure and boundless winning is nothing but bluster. He certainly employed it as a business strategy throughout his career, on the theory that if he created an image of spectacular success and wealth, then people would believe it to be true, invest in his projects, and buy his products, and that would in turn make him successful and wealthy. It's quite a bit more complicated in politics, but there's a certain rationale to it.
Yet it's hard to imagine President Trump asking himself probing questions about his mistakes, in an attempt to learn as much as he can and improve his decision-making. He arrived in office thinking he didn't need to know anything about the job because "I have a very good brain" and "I understand things. I comprehend very well, okay? Better than I think almost anybody." And today he insists that his every moment in the White House has been fantastic: "I don't think that there is a presidential period of time in the first 100 days where anyone has done nearly what we've been able to do."
So there's no reason to think that the private Trump is any different than the public Trump, at least on this score. Fortunately, none of his mistakes have been so catastrophic that we can't recover from them. Yet.