Donald Trump likes to think of himself as a hard bargainer, someone who can get the best deal in any situation. The truth, however, is that in both domestic and international politics, Trump has failed to negotiate anything of substance.

If you think about it, Trump’s few policy successes have rested entirely on executive branch actions (deregulation) and requiring the GOP to vote in lockstep with the president (the tax bill). He has struck no real bargains with Democrats. His trade war threats have yielded little beyond a cynical agreement with South Korea. Some Republicans may applaud his withdrawals from the Trans-Pacific Partnership, Iranian nuclear deal and Paris climate change accord. Those moves, however, have produced no concessions from other countries and undercut America’s bargaining position. (It might have something to do with Trump’s lack of a Plan B in all these cases.) Trump’s security threats have yielded nothing in Syria and a detail-free summit with North Korean leader Kim Jong Un that might pan out but probably will not.

This is worth remembering when reading The Washington Post’s Philip Rucker, Josh Dawsey and Seung Min Kim’s latest account of Trump’s threats on the immigration question:

Trump heads to Capitol Hill on Tuesday to meet with House Republicans and push for immigration legislation that would provide funding for his promised border wall, among other priorities. Senior administration officials suggested the humanitarian crisis at the border was leverage to force legislators to pass such a law.
“We do not want to separate parents from their children,” [Attorney General Jeff] Sessions, an architect and key defender of the policy, said in a speech Monday. “If we build the wall, if we pass legislation to end the lawlessness, we won’t face these terrible choices.”. . .
At a meeting with Sen. Richard C. Shelby (R-Ala.) and Sen. Shelley Moore Capito (R-W.Va.) at the White House on Monday, Trump re-upped his threat to shut down the government in September if he doesn’t get money for the border wall, according to two people familiar with the meeting. Trump told the senators he was willing to take such a drastic action, these people said, and wanted his wall funding along with strong border security measures.

This sounds like hardball bargaining tactics. The Trump administration’s willingness to follow through on its inhumane, immoral actions also suggest a severity to the administration’s position. Might Trump get Democrats to cave?


The most obvious problem is that there are good reasons to think that Trump will cave. The initial polling shows that an overwhelming majority of Americans outside of Trump’s base oppose the separation of families at the border. An Ipsos poll showed 55 percent of Americans opposed. Quinnipiac has 66 percent disapproval, and CNN has 67 percent. It is true that all three of these polls show a plurality or majority of Republicans approving, but even that approval is tepid. As FiveThirtyEight’s Micah Cohen noted, “Given partisan gravity, these GOP [numbers] are pretty underwhelming in terms of support for Trump’s policy.”

The lack of popular support for this policy is also reflected at various moments in The Post’s story of Republicans contradicting each other. Some examples:

Though the administration has tried to present a public picture of steely resolve — vowing not to apologize for enforcing the law, as Homeland Security Secretary Kirstjen Nielsen said Monday — senior officials have disagreed behind the scenes about the merits and morality of separating children from their parents. . . .
“The White House can fix it if they want to,” Sen. Orrin G. Hatch (R-Utah) said. “I don’t think there’s any question about that.”
Nielsen also said the administration is not using its “zero tolerance” policy to pressure Congress to act on Trump’s broader immigration agenda or to deter migrants from coming to the country, contradicting comments from other administration officials, including Sessions, White House Chief of Staff John F. Kelly and senior adviser Stephen Miller.

This does not sound like an administration in which everyone is singing to the same tune. Reportage of division and dysfunction within the executive branch will not encourage Democrat to acquiesce on any dimension.

Another sign that this won’t work is that Trump tried a similar strategy with DACA recipients and Democrats did not budge. Indeed, as Josh Barro noted over the weekend in an excellent Business Insider column, the reasons that gambit failed also highlights why Trump will not succeed this time:

Democrats know immigration policy is a long game and making long-run concessions in exchange for short-term changes on DACA and other matters would be foolish, especially since Trump can’t be trusted to implement a compromise on terms to which he agrees.
And then there is the matter of saving face. When Trump behaves horribly, that makes Democratic voters want to see Democratic officials stand up to him, not cut deals in hopes that he will stop being horrible.
You can’t poison the well and then expect people to drink from it just because you promise that, if they do, you won’t poison the well again.

In three paragraphs, Barro managed to summarize Trump’s three biggest negotiating flaws:

  • He cannot credibly commit,
  • He cannot think beyond the short term, and
  • His tactics raise the audience costs for partisans on the other side to back down.

This is a recipe for failed negotiations. What is the point of bargaining with the president in good faith if the very idea of good faith is anathema to the entire administration?

Trump believes that this will be a winning issue with his base. The Democrats believe the opposite. There will be no bargains. There will be deadlock until November. And possibly beyond.