How savvy? Friday’s scheduled vote on a Republican health-care overhaul represented the first major test of Trump’s ability to cut deals as president. He failed the test.
A last-minute decision to scuttle the vote spared Trump the indignity of a formal defeat, but the move amounted to a loss via forfeit. Briefing the media earlier Friday, White House press secretary Sean Spicer reminded reporters that the president had personally lobbied 120 lawmakers in meetings or phone calls.
Trump had “left everything on the field,” Spicer said. “Everything” proved insufficient.
Regard for Trump’s skill as a negotiator has been central to his media image since before he entered politics. (After all, this is the man NBC paid to host “The Apprentice,” beginning in 2004, on the premise that he drives a bargain in a way others want to emulate.) Good dealmaking was at the core of Trump’s campaign message, and a press corps that often threw water on his many dubious claims generally bought into the idea that he is, if nothing else, someone who knows how to negotiate.
A few examples from early campaign coverage:
- On June 29, 2015, Vanity Fair — edited by one of Trump’s media nemeses, Graydon Carter — published an article that recounted four bankruptcy filings by Trump-owned businesses. Even as it focused on the lowlights of Trump's business career, however, Vanity Fair credited him with being “able to insulate himself from any real harm” in the 1992 bankruptcy of an Atlantic City hotel.
“Ever the negotiator,” the magazine wrote, “the entrepreneur agreed to give up a 49 percent stake in the hotel to Citibank and other lenders, according to ABC News. In exchange, he received more favorable repayment terms on the debt. The celebrity developer also managed to hold onto his CEO title, even though it meant giving up his salary and any role in the day-to-day operation of the hotel.”
- On the same day that Vanity Fair published the bankruptcy story, Chicago Tribune columnist Rex Huppke wrote an extended mockery of Trump’s braggadocio. “If Donald Trump were writing this column, it would be the finest newspaper column in the history of journalism,” Huppke began. “Anyone who thought otherwise would be a dope and a loser and would know nothing about column writing.”
Having recently met Trump in person for the first time, however, Huppke offered this concession: “He's taller than I expected, affable and skilled at commanding a room. Much of what he boasts about relates to his self-proclaimed ability to make deals, and it’s not hard to imagine him as a frustratingly tough negotiator.”
- On the one-month anniversary of Trump’s campaign launch, Peter Augustine Lawler wrote in the National Review — the conservative magazine that later published that memorable “Against Trump” issue — that he “can't stand Trump.”
“But,” Lawler granted, “when the guys at Panera talk him up, they admire his toughness, his capacity to stand up to Putin, ISIS, and the Chinese, his willingness to speak his mind, his can-do record of success as a business leader (displayed by his wealth and his reality show). It's (well, misguided) praise of his character and competence, and it is pretty content-free, although they do believe the president gave the Iranians way too much just to get a deal. A tough negotiator like Trump wouldn’t have done that!”
From the outset of the campaign, many news reports — even critical ones — credited Trump with negotiating prowess.
A single legislative failure does not erase the reputation Trump built over several decades, but it is a blow that means his ability to translate business-world tactics to governing remains unproven.