The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Donald Trump says he’s a great negotiator. But on the shutdown, he’s struggling.

President Trump promised voters he would bring congressional leaders together to make deals. Then the government shut down three times. (Video: JM Rieger/The Washington Post)
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Donald Trump ran for president on the premise that the United States needed a leader adept at wheeling and dealing. Who better to straighten out dysfunctional Washington than the man who wrote (or, more accurately, paid to have someone ghostwrite) the book on the art of the deal?

Trump introduced himself at the second GOP presidential primary debate this way: “I wrote ‘The Art of the Deal.’ I say not in a braggadocios way, I’ve made billions and billions of dollars dealing with people all over the world, and I want to put whatever that talent is to work for this country.”

On the trail, Trump said his superior negotiating skills would allow him to quickly build a concrete wall along the southern border, funded by Mexico. No problem.

That wall made for a great campaign chant. But getting it done has been much more complicated. So complicated, in fact, that the president shut down a quarter of the federal government. He says he’ll leave 800,000 workers without paychecks until Congress agrees to appropriate money from U.S. taxpayers, not Mexico, for the wall’s construction.

It’s a great example of where the Trump facade begins to fall apart. He’s great at bluster and big promises. He can rile people up. But when that’s not enough, he can’t get things done. He promised a grand health-care plan. Obamacare is still the law of the land. He said he could solve the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. He couldn’t. He declared North Korea no longer a threat. It still is.

As Washington Post reporters David Nakamura and Seung Min Kim described it:

Trump’s approach is a hallmark of a president who eschews strategic planning and preparation in favor of day-to-day tactical maneuvering and trusting his gut. But as he digs in against an emboldened Democratic opposition, Trump has found that his go-to arsenal of bluster, falsehoods, threats and theatrics has laid bare his shortcomings as a negotiator — preventing him from finding a way out of what may be the biggest political crisis of his presidency.

You can see this with the wall debacle.

Trump argues the Democrats are not negotiating in good faith. But the president has had many, many opportunities over the last two years to make a deal with Congress. Instead, he kept moving the goal post, shifting positions and trying to satisfy his base.

Let’s run through what happened:

In Sept. 2017, Democrats suggested $25 billion for the wall. In exchange, they would get a path to citizenship for “dreamers,” the undocumented immigrants brought to the United States as children. Trump signaled he would sign on, until his far-right base of supporters told him to hold out.

Ultimately, he said, “no.”

Then, Republicans lost the House in the midterm elections. Trump’s bargaining position weakened. Faced with a pending government shutdown, Democrats offered Trump $1.6 billion for border security in exchange for funding the government.

Again, he said, “no.”

In a meeting with Democratic leaders — one he chose to televise — he willingly accepted responsibility for the shutdown.

Just before the winter holidays, Republicans in the Senate gave him a chance to save face by passing legislation to keep the government running through Feb. 8 to buy the White House and Democrats time to keep negotiating without the stress of a shutdown.

Pressured again by his far-right flank, he said, “no.”

Since then, Democrats have said there’s no longer any money on the table for a wall. They have suggested opening up the shuttered agencies unrelated to national security and then having a separate debate about the Homeland Security budget.

Again, Trump said, “no.”

At this point, it’s hard to imagine Democrats will give in. Congressional Republicans are beginning to get antsy. Trump could have had $25 billion for his wall. It’s doubtful that he’ll have even a portion of that. The irony, of course, is that any of the above offers would have gotten him a lot closer to his ultimate goal than he is today when the only option he seems to have left is to just blow it all up by declaring a national emergency.

As House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) told Post reporter Paul Kane on Capitol Hill on Friday, “His version of a negotiation is, do everything I want.”