“My style of deal-making is quite simple and straightforward,” writes President Trump in “The Art of the Deal,” the book of which he is so terribly proud. “I aim very high, and then I just keep pushing and pushing and pushing to get what I’m after.”
It has all the sophistication and insight of a cookbook that advises, “Put together a bunch of ingredients, and cook 'em until they taste fantastic. That’s how you make great food.” As we suffer through what by this weekend will be the longest government shutdown in history, the entire country is learning an awful truth: Trump is a deal-maker of absolutely stunning ineptitude, and we’re all paying the price for it.
We don't yet know how the shutdown is going to be resolved, but we do know that Trump has bumbled his way through this conflict with such incompetence that even his most ardent defenders would have a hard time claiming he has any idea what he's doing.
First, he supported a temporary bill to fund the government, one that passed the Senate unanimously, but when the likes of Ann Coulter and Rush Limbaugh criticized him for being weak, he quickly shifted his position and refused to sign any spending bill that didn’t have funding for a border wall. Then he went on live television and told Democratic leaders, “I am proud to shut down the government. ... I will take the mantle. I will be the one to shut it down. I’m not going to blame you for it,” thereby making his later (and inevitable) attempts to blame the Democrats almost comical.
And now his attempts at "negotiating" are abysmal. He stalked out of a meeting with Chuck Schumer and Nancy Pelosi when they wouldn't give in, then went to Twitter to lob juvenile insults at them. That won't get him any closer to a deal, but it does provide some insight into where Trump is coming from.
As Shannon Pettypiece and Margaret Talev point out, the dramatic exit is a negotiating tactic Trump has used for many years. In his pre-political life, they report, “Trump was known to have done the same thing when a deal wasn’t going his way. He even walked out of a judge’s chambers during divorce proceedings.” Like most of what Trump believes about deal-making, it’s based on the presumption that he’s the one with the power, and if he’s enough of a bully then those on the other side of the table will eventually just give him what he wants.
When he was a private citizen, that was often the case. If he was negotiating with a vendor — probably a small-businessperson who was eager to do work for someone so famous — he could bully them into terms advantageous to him. If they didn’t like it, he could find someone else to sell him the bathroom fixtures or curtains (and they probably didn’t realize that chances were he’d stiff them on the bill). It was all based on the idea that the other person needed him but that he didn’t need them. So aggression was the only tactic necessary.
When he ran for president, he figured he could use the same technique. During the 2016 campaign, he said that the way to deal with China was to say, “Listen you mother f---ers, we’re going to tax you 25 percent.” Next thing you know they’d quake before his manly power and give us back all the manufacturing jobs that have been lost over the past couple of decades. Needless to say, that hasn’t happened.
One of the consequences of Trump’s simplistic view of negotiating is that he doesn’t know what to do when faced with a situation where the other person has just as much power as him, and things such as yelling and walking out of the room in a huff don’t make them knuckle under.
The truth that Trump still doesn’t grasp is that presidential negotiating is much more complicated than negotiating something like brand licensing agreements. It requires knowledge of often complex policy issues and a deep understanding of all the forces at play with the other side. And that might be where Trump’s failure is the most profound.
When he negotiated with, say, a developer in Panama who wanted to slap the Trump brand on an apartment building, it was relatively simple: This guy wants the prestige of the Trump name, and we just need to find a mutually agreeable price. But members of Congress have motivations, incentives and constraints that are vastly more complex: ideology, policy preferences, worries about reelection, multiple constituencies whose desires need to be considered, concerns about the next presidential election, and more. In order to successfully negotiate with them, you need to understand all those factors to find a successful resolution.
But Trump shows no sign of believing he has to understand any of that. You see it in foreign policy, too: Trump thought that he could charm Kim Jong Un into giving up nuclear weapons, but didn't bother to understand what those weapons represent to Kim and why he might be so loath to part with them. The result is that the weapons are still there, and Trump's talk of winning a Nobel Peace Prize because he negotiated such a great deal now makes him look like a fool.
Nor does Trump realize that unlike with his private business, as president he has to negotiate again and again with the same people. As a businessman he could con someone out of his or her life savings or refuse to pay a bill, and it wouldn’t matter because there were always more suckers to be found. But now he has to negotiate with people who have learned that they can’t trust his word, and he might make you a promise today that he breaks tomorrow.
Even Trump’s own allies acknowledge that he can’t be trusted. “Democrats keep saying, ‘We don’t trust it until Trump will sign it,' '' said Sen. Lindsey O. Graham (R-S.C.) yesterday. “That’s not an unreasonable request.” “It’s always difficult,” said Sen. John Cornyn (R-Tex.), “when the person you’re negotiating with is someone who changes their mind.”
Yes, it is. Which is why the only real way out of this crisis is for Democrats and Republicans in Congress to stop negotiating with Trump entirely. They should negotiate with each other, pass a bill to fund the government and put it on his desk. He might veto it, but he probably won’t. Then he can proclaim that it was only his brilliant deal-making skill that led to a resolution, and the rest of us can get on with our lives.