Piers Morgan interviews Donald Trump

Professor Peter Bull (Universities of York & Salford) watches.

In previous research, I have identified 36 ways of not replying to a question, based on televised interviews with British politicians, and Prime Minister’s Questions (Bull, 2003, 2016; Bull & Mayer, 1993). Notably, President Donald Trump makes use some of these techniques of equivocation in his much-heralded interview with Piers Morgan broadcast on ITV at the end of January.

Pleading ignorance

Pleading ignorance as a way of not answering questions was a speciality of former Conservative Prime Minister John Major. Trump also pleads ignorance on occasions in response to awkward questions in this interview. So when asked about the opposition politicians who want him banned from the UK such as London Mayor Sadiq Khan, Trump responds “I don’t now the man. I don’t know the man”. When asked about his retweets of anti-Muslim videos posted by the far right-wing group Britain First, Trump responds “I don’t know who they are. I know nothing about them”. When asked if he has an invitation go the royal wedding between Prince Harry and Meghan Markle, Trump again pleads ignorance, responding “Not that I know of”.

Ignoring the question

Another way of dealing with awkward questions is simply to ignore them. Morgan pursues the issue of the royal wedding by asking Trump: “Would you like to go?” Trump simply ignores the question, responding “I want them to be happy. I really want them to be happy. They look like a lovely couple”. Morgan further pursues the issue by saying “Meghan Markle did say you were a divisive misogynist”. Trump’s response is “Well, I still hope they’re happy”. In this instance, Trump does acknowledge the question (through the use of the particle“still”), but then goes on to ignore Markle’s comment in his response.

Modifying the question

A particular technique of equivocation favoured by the current Prime Minister, Theresa May, is to modify a question, and then respond to the modified version (Bull, 2016). In this interview, when Morgan asks Trump in relation to his views on woman whether he has “changed as a man”, Trump avoids the word “change”, responding instead “Well I think we have to evolve”, and going on to say that he has “tremendous respect for women”. The question was neither about evolution nor about showing respect for women, but it is the one to which Trump responds.

Apologising

On one occasion, former Conservative Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher used an apology to equivocate in response to a challenging question from David Dimbleby, in which he asked “....isn’t one of the difficulties for the Tories that your way of governing and talking about government gets up the noses of a lot of voters?” Thatcher’s response was to say “Well I’m sorry if it does it’s not intended to I’m very sorry if it does”. In producing this conditional apology, Thatcher equivocated by neither acknowledging nor denying that one of the difficulties for the Tories was that her way of governing “gets up the noses of a lot of voters”.

In this interview, Trump also uses a conditional apology in relation to his retweeting of the anti-Muslim videos posted by Britain First. When asked by Piers Morgan “Can I get an apology out of you just for the retweets of Britain First? I think it would go a long way”, Trump responds “Here’s what’s fair: If you’re telling me they’re horrible people, horrible racist people, I would certainly apologize if you’d like me to do that. I know nothing about them”.


Interestingly, Trump does use the actual word “apologize”, in contrast to many politicians, who when asked to apologize typically use the word “regret”, thereby avoiding taking responsibility for their actions. However, Trump avoids taking responsibility in a different way. Not only is his “apology” conditional (“I would certainly apologize if .....”), he does not actually make an apology, saying only “I would certainly apologize if you’d like me to do that”. Thereby, Trump hands the responsibility back to Morgan further to insist on an apology, which Morgan does not do, moving on instead to another question (“And you would disavow yourself of people like that?” [i.e., Britian First].

Concluding remarks

Given Donald Trump’s notoriously combative style of rhetoric, this interview is really quite muted. However, Morgan’s interview style is also less than confrontational. He neither challenges Trump’s equivocations nor pursues awkward issues with further close questioning. In fact, Morgan pays complements Trump – for his tweets, for his economic successes, for his readiness to respond to criticism. However, although Morgan’s soft interview style gives Trump plenty of leeway, Trump also equivocates to avoid confrontations on awkward issues. In doing so, he uses techniques of equivocation which can be readily identified from those of other politicians – whom in this interview he is increasingly becoming to resemble.

- Find more Donald Trump in our archive.

BPS Members can discuss this article

Already a member? Or Create an account

Not a member? Find out about becoming a member or subscriber