The only way to deal with Donald Trump is to not do deals with Donald Trump. The private sector has learned this; when will Congress?
For his entire career, our dealmaker in chief has relied on a not-so-secret technique for extracting supposedly good deals: He agrees to a given set of terms and then, at the last minute, reneges on them.
He has done this to small businesses around the country, refusing to pay for cabinetry, catering, real estate commissions, and other goods and services after they’ve already been delivered. His companies have also filed for bankruptcy six times, helping him wriggle out of bills. Given this reputation, it’s hardly surprising that vendors and lenders alike ultimately learned it was wiser not to do business with him at all, rather than count on him to keep his word.
During the 2016 campaign, Trump promised that he’d “run government like a business,” and in this respect — among others — he has.
Multiple times since taking office, after agreeing to a deal, he has changed his mind at the very last minute. He’s done this with “dreamers,” China tariffs, a Group of Seven communique, budgets. As Senate Minority Leader Charles E. Schumer (D-N.Y.) put it earlier this year, during the lead-up to the last government shutdown, “Negotiating with President Trump is like negotiating with Jell-O.”
Which is to say: Trump doesn’t know what he wants, only that he doesn’t want whatever he has committed to. As I’ve written before, if a man’s word is his bond, Trump’s would be rated junk.
Trump illustrated this yet again in the run-up to the latest shutdown.
Initially, Trump signaled that he’d sign a stopgap funding bill that would have kept the government open until early February. To be clear, kicking the can down the road for another seven weeks is not exactly a sign of responsible governance. But if you’re a Republican, it seemed shrewd politically. The majorities of both houses of Congress have an interest in looking at least semi-functional. Shutdowns, besides inflicting unnecessary pain on hundreds of thousands of federal workers, are embarrassing.
Which is why Trump and Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) decided to endorse this stopgap bill and delay a more substantial funding battle until after Democrats take over the House in the new year. Then at least Rep. Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.), the likely incoming House speaker, could be scapegoated for any shutdown-related embarrassment.
Accordingly, the Senate passed the temporary funding measure, by voice vote, on Dec. 19. The House was expected to vote on it the following day, and the bill was anticipated to sail through with broad support in both parties.
Before then, Trump did what he always does: He suddenly changed his mind.
Egged on by Fox News and Ann Coulter, he announced he was torpedoing any funding bill — including this pitiful temporary measure — unless it included money for his precious border wall. And so outgoing Speaker Paul D. Ryan (R-Wis.) decided not to bring the Senate-passed version of the funding bill to the floor at all.
It’s precisely this sort of flip-flopping — and the cowardly congressional accommodation of said flip-flopping — that is slowly fraying the full faith and credit of the U.S. government.
We’re stuck in an indefinite government shutdown now that Congress has apparently disbanded until after the new year. Maybe the Trump administration will find ways to preserve many of the Obamacare provisions that the public loves, despite refusing to defend them in court; maybe not.
Both the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) and NAFTA 2.0 remain in limbo, as do the steel and aluminum tariffs on Canada and Mexico that Trump promised to repeal once a deal was signed. Same with the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces Treaty, a Cold War-era arms-control agreement. And so on.
Trump has managed to convince himself, and his base, that he’s a brilliant negotiator, smarter than all the experts — including his Federal Reserve chairman, the many minions tasked with negotiating and renegotiating trade deals, his secretaries of state, defense or treasury, or really all of the “best people” he has selected to work for him.
His gut tells him more than anybody else’s brain can ever tell him, he maintains. But his gut seems to have a perpetual case of indigestion, given how often it flips.
The real question is why congressional leaders, including Ryan, repeatedly cave to Trump’s latest tweets and fleeting fancies instead of writing him off as the flake that he is. Why not at least try to whip the veto-proof votes — for a budget, really for any piece of legislation — necessary to simply govern without him? The only thing you can rely on Trump for is unreliability.