In French singer Edith Piaf’s signature song, she tells us “Je ne regrette rien”: “I regret nothing.” For the past 14 months, that’s been the ethos of Donald Trump’s presidential campaign. No matter how many racist, xenophobic, belittling, or mean-spirited things that he has said on the presidential campaign trail, he’s never once apologized or expressed remorse for any of them.
But last night in Charlotte he sang a new tune: “Je regrette certaines choses” — “I regret some things.” Things that Trump refused to actually identify.
To be sure, this is the closest Trump will ever come to admitting an error.
“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,” he said. “I have done that, and I regret it, particularly when it may have caused personal pain.”
This is not an apology. Truth be told, it’s kind of a brilliant formulation. Trump could be expressing regret about that time he called Mexican immigrants “rapists” and “murderers” or when he mocked a disabled New York Times reporter, or derided Jeb Bush as “low energy” and Marco Rubio as “little Marco.” Or maybe he regrets, as he said last night that, “sometimes” he can just be “too honest.” Who among us has not done the same? Maybe he regrets that he hasn’t made even worse statements and feels bad about the personal pain that has caused to his more reactionary and intolerant supporters.
If Trump really felt regret, he might offer a few examples. That, after all, is usually how regret works. To the extent Trump feels remorse, it’s likely about how badly he is losing to Hillary Clinton in the polls. And not some of them, mind you, but all of them. That, of course, is the real reason why he offered his statement: He hopes it will convince reporters and perhaps a few undecided voters to look at him in a new light.
But it’s hard to take Trump seriously when a moment after expressing “regret” over the “personal pain” he’s caused, he declared that “one thing I can promise you is this: I will always tell the truth.” Later, he said that his campaign was offering the American people “a new future of honesty, justice, and opportunity” and that in his campaign journey, “I will never lie to you.”
That sound you just heard? Irony collapsing to the ground in its death throes.
In the same speech in which Trump pledged to be a troubadour of honesty and probity, he repeated the lie that President Obama lied about that $400 million cash exchange with Iran; he accused Hillary Clinton of “unleashing ISIS around the world”; of lying to the families of those killed at Benghazi; of putting “Iran on the path to nuclear weapons,” and of “never telling the truth.”
Not one of these claims is true.
Only hours before Trump’s speech, his campaign spokeswoman, Katrina Pierson, went on MSNBC and alleged — without evidence — that Clinton suffers from dysphasia, a serious neurological condition. So I guess that means the Trump Truth-Telling Tour is starting . . . now.
Now, Trump’s speech last night was certainly better written than those he’s delivered in the past, but crisper, cleaner rhetoric can’t mask the true nature of Trump’s rhetoric. His speech was still chock-full of xenophobic claims about illegal immigrants committing crime in the United States. It still falsely accused Hillary Clinton of being personally corrupt. As always, it offered little in the way of actual policy substance, and presented a dystopian view of America, circa 2016.
If Donald Trump wants to pivot toward being a less vitriolic and more honest and self-reflective candidate, I say more power to him. But nothing he said last night — or has said since he announced his presidential bid in June 2015 — should lead anyone to believe that’s about to happen.
Michael A. Cohen’s column appears regularly in the Globe. Follow him on Twitter @speechboy71.