Donald Trump, like Obama, campaigned on a pledge to get the United States “out of the nation-building business.” But when Iraqi leaders demanded that U.S. forces withdraw after Trump ordered the killing in Iraq of a top Iranian military commander, the president’s instinct was to describe the crisis in purely mercenary terms: “We’ve spent a lot of money in Iraq,” he said. “We have a very extraordinarily expensive air base that’s there. It cost billions of dollars to build. . . . We’re not leaving unless they pay us back for it.”
Trump won the presidency by promising to run the country like a business. He would be the consummate negotiator, driven not by ideology or grand strategy but by his gut, by a plain-spoken, transactional commitment to winning. In this, perhaps more than any other realm, he has fulfilled his promise: He possesses a singular focus on transactions — deals, not relationships; the bottom line, not long-term goals or foundational principles.
In the Middle East, as in Europe, Asia and North America, Trump’s approach has hewed closely to his lifelong belief that a person is judged by the deals he makes, by a reckoning of wins and losses. Trump believes he wins because he can be purely transactional, free from the norms, ideologies and traditions that restrain his rivals.
He turned against America’s European allies because he thought NATO saddled the United States with way more than its share of the cost of mutual defense. He overturned trade deals such as NAFTA and the Trans-Pacific Partnership, and then the Iran nuclear pact as well, because he perceived that the United States was giving more than it got in return. He has levied or threatened stiff tariffs on China, the European Union, Turkey and Mexico, arguing that they provide net profits for the United States, even though numerous analyses say they have raised prices for American consumers and cost the country hundreds of thousands of jobs. He argues that North Korea should join the community of nations so it can realize its prime beachfront real estate potential. (“Boy, look at that view,” he told reporters. “Wouldn’t that make a great condo?”)
The controversy that got Trump impeached began when he wanted to withhold aid from Ukraine, in part because of his long-standing resentment of America’s tradition of helping other countries with humanitarian, military and economic aid: “Why aren’t all of these countries — why aren’t they paying? Why is it always the United States that has to pay?”
This is not an attitude he developed when he entered politics. In 1980, Trump gave one of his most revealing interviews, to TV celebrity interviewer Rona Barrett, saying that winning transactions was the core of his life: “I think about it literally 24 hours a day, and I really enjoy it. . . . I do understand it’s all basically a game. . . . The people that enjoy it are the people that have been winners.” Trump views existence as a battle to make the best deals. “I really look at life to a certain extent as combat,” he said at the time. His first bestseller described dealmaking as his “art.”
No unified theory of Trump explains his every provocation or impulsive decision. He has said throughout his life that his primary skill and motivation is to be a showman. And he struggles to balance his craving for respect with his desire to win the spotlight, even when it means alienating the very elites and authorities whose respect he seeks. That’s why he talks about hiring “the best people” as aides, yet often turns on advisers who grab the attention of the media.
But Trump’s obsession with the bottom line permeates his approach to governing, including his current stance toward Baghdad: We own you. You owe us. “We had Iraq,” Trump said on “Face the Nation” last year. “We spent a fortune on building this incredible base. We might as well keep it.” That idea has stuck with the president, and on Jan. 3, he tweeted that “the United States has paid Iraq Billions of Dollars a year, for many years. That is on top of all else we have done for them.”
Trump “boils complex issues down to things he can count,” said G. Richard Shell, a professor of business ethics at the University of Pennsylvania’s Wharton School. “He asks, ‘What’s the asset here, and how can I get it?’ He perceives unequal benefits being exchanged, and he immediately escalates to the highest level of conflict he can see. And then his people signal to him, ‘No, no, no,’ and he backs off. He backed off on separating families at the Mexican border, and he’ll back off on this crisis,” Shell said Tuesday. On Wednesday, Trump did just that, delivering a measured address, noting that “Iran appears to be standing down” and seeking to “work together” with Tehran on “shared priorities.”
Perhaps counterintuitively, Trump’s impulsive attraction to transactional thinking may make him less likely to stumble into a war than more ideologically driven presidents. “Many wars have begun because politicians felt they couldn’t lose face,” Shell said. “Trump relishes the unpredictability of his behavior. He would never say, ‘My word is sacred to me, I have to pull the trigger.’ ”
The decision to kill Iranian Maj. Gen. Qasem Soleimani without any apparent plan for managing Iran’s inevitable retaliation is typical of how Trump has always operated. He takes pride in acting swiftly and decisively, in the moment. He does not want to hear about antedecents that might inform his decision-making or about how today’s decision might alter future options.
Trump’s attitude toward Iran traces back to the 1979 hostage crisis, the first time the young New York real estate developer opined on national TV about a matter of foreign policy. He focused immediately on the notion of acquiring Iran’s oil: “That this country sits back and allows a country such as Iran to hold our hostages, to my way of thinking, is a horror,” Trump said in the 1980 Barrett interview. If the United States had sent troops to Iran to rescue the American hostages, “I think right now we’d be an oil-rich nation,” he said, “and I believe that we should have done it.”
Trump’s willingness — eagerness, even — to focus on the financial bottom line and then take extreme measures to win, or rather, to be perceived as someone willing to go to extremes, is nothing new. It’s how he built his career, positioning himself as a provocateur who would destroy historic landmarks after promising not to do so or threaten to move homeless people into a high-end apartment building to pressure tenants to leave — all in service of higher profits and better deals.
Research on executives who favor transactional deals over enduring business relationships finds that “you get better deals and fewer of them” with the more impulsive approach, Shell said, but “you get many more deals, and they’re much more nuanced,” if they are based on lasting relationships.
In government, Trump has cycled through a series of top advisers, often frustrated that he hasn’t found people he thinks he can trust. Instead, he focuses on the one thing he can always measure — the value of a deal. As Trump put it in a speech in 2004: “Watch out for people, even [those] close to you, because in the end, if it’s a choice between you and them, they’re usually going to choose themselves. . . . You really have to think of yourself as a one-man show.”
Trump’s great strength — and his frightening emptiness — stem from the same character trait: He lives in the moment and is therefore liberated to take actions that more studious leaders might shy away from. His transactional focus has allowed him to take advantage of Richard Nixon’s “madman theory,” the notion that a president who is willing to be perceived as tough, unpredictable and even unhinged can force an enemy to make concessions for fear of suffering an immoderate attack. Threatening to bomb Iran’s cultural sites, and then backing away after his own defense secretary said it would be a war crime, comes easily to a president who cares mainly about winning the moment. Transaction complete, he moves on to the next deal with the slate clean, at least in his own mind.