The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

President Trump, desperate dealmaker

The president is cutting deals, but all of the available evidence suggests that he is getting played.

President Trump and Chinese President Xi Jinping before dinner at Mar-a-Lago in Palm Beach, Fla. (AP)
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Nikki Haley — the rare Trump official who has earned praise from the hard-working staff here at Spoiler Alerts — defended President Trump’s recent decision to fire FBI Director James B. Comey:

Now let’s skip over the awful CEO analogy in which Haley is factually wrong and get to this other claim of hers:

I think what you can see is this is a president of action. I mean he is not one that’s going to sit there and talk for too long. If he thinks someone is wrong, he’s going to deal with it. And I think that, you know, the reason people are uncomfortable is because he acts. He doesn’t talk with a bunch of people about it before, he just acts.

Haley is right on two counts: She is correct that Trump seems to act without much consultation, and, yes indeed, it makes me extremely uncomfortable.

[Side note: This is an amusing trope among Trump defenders. When he does something rash or ill-considered, his acolytes praise him as “incredibly decisive.“]

The reason it makes me uncomfortable has to do with a persistent trait of Trump the politician: his clear preference for cutting any deal at the expense of cutting a good deal.

To be fair, the primitive political instinct that guides Trump to this strategy makes some intuitive sense. He thinks that in politics, the appearance of getting things done counts for at least as much as the content of what is actually done. Both voters and reporters have a bias in favor of action over inaction. If Trump is seen as doing things, it leaves the impression with his supporters that he is accomplishing tasks. He knows that reporters will give him some patina of positive political coverage if he gets legislation passed.

Trump pretty much tweeted his preference for action over prudence late last week:

As a result, the president of the United States does not seem to care all that much what is contained within these accomplishments. This is what rankled the House Freedom Caucus when Trump told them in March not to sweat the details of the American Health Care Act:

The group of roughly 30 House conservatives, gathered around a mammoth, oval-shaped conference table in the Cabinet Room of the White House, exchanged disapproving looks. Trump wanted to emphasize the political ramifications of the bill’s defeat; specifically, he said, it would derail his first-term agenda and imperil his prospects for reelection in 2020. The lawmakers nodded and said they understood. And yet they were disturbed by his dismissiveness. For many of the members, the “little s—” meant the policy details that could make or break their support for the bill — and have far-reaching implications for their constituents and the country.

The House passed AHCA earlier this month, but in the process the bill bears little resemblance to Trump’s promised plan from January. It also appears to be super-unpopular — like, more unpopular than Obamacare ever was.

Trump’s desperation for any kind of deal is problematic when applied to domestic policy. It is catastrophic when bargaining internationally. I warned about this problem back in April:

A nascent grand strategy is becoming visible for the Trump administration, and it’s a rather disturbing one. The grand strategy is that the administration demonstrates a willingness to rent out its foreign policy to any interested investor. So long as Trump can proclaim some glossy, high-profile investments, he is willing to trade off U.S. interests in the Pacific Rim or Europe or wherever. Which means that countries such as China can have their way with Trump so long as they meet the minimum price, which is a few promised billions.
This is a dangerous and stupid game to play. Current shifts in foreign policy can have long-lasting effects; announcements of investments can be followed by non-implementation. It also guarantees that all of America’s allies in the Pacific Rim will gravitate closer to China than the United States.

Last week, Trump tried to direct the media’s attention away from Comey and toward the recent U.S.-China deal on beef and poultry. The thing is, the experts who have looked at it don’t seem terribly impressed. From The Washington Post’s Damian Paletta and Simon Denyer:

“China has made a few modest concessions that cost it very little, in areas strategically picked to maximize the political benefit to Trump,” said Arthur Kroeber, managing director of Gavekal Dragonomics, an economic research firm in Beijing. “But the substantive impact on U.S.-China trade and investment flows is pretty minimal.”

Writing in Forbes, Gordon Chang was even less impressed:

The new pact could be a “breakthrough,” but it may not constitute progress, at least from the U.S. perspective. On the contrary, it might actually increase America’s bulging trade deficit with China….
Unfortunately, a number of Beijing’s promises in the 10-point plan are essentially pledges not to do something that it should not have been doing in the first place. Take the much-publicized agreement on U.S. beef. China in 2003 imposed a ban on all U.S. beef because of an isolated case in Washington state of bovine spongiform encephalopathy — mad cow — disease, and, without justification, effectively kept the prohibition in place.
Similarly, China’s credit card promise is essentially a pledge not to continually violate its World Trade Organization obligations. Beijing lost a 2012 case on the subject.

In the meantime, the United States has curtailed its freedom of navigation exercises in the South China Sea and seems willing to recognize China’s pre-eminence in its One Belt, One Road initiative:

The Financial Times’ Shawn Donnan summarizes the ways in which Trump’s desperate need for the optics of a deal led to a bad one:

To some former US officials, Trump advisers, business executives and other close watchers of the US-China relationship … this was a poor deal in which Beijing had simply reheated old promises. They say it raises questions about the Trump administration’s strategic wherewithal and the very negotiating muscle the president has so often touted….
According to the administration, the deal — part of a 100-day plan hatched by Mr. Trump and Chinese President Xi Jinping during the Florida summit in April — will turn out to be the first of many. But critics say that in its impatience to get a deal done, the new US administration had given up many key points of leverage that would have been useful for future negotiations.
Meanwhile, in the name of reducing a trade deficit with China worth more than $300bn last year, the administration showed no signs of addressing bigger strategic economic issues such as Beijing’s efforts to force US companies to use Chinese technology or to buy US companies in key sectors. “[The Trump administration has] a single metric for trade success and that’s ‘have we reduced the trade deficit with a country?’, says Robert Atkinson, head of the Information Technology and Innovation Foundation, a Washington-based think tank. “And the Chinese fundamentally don’t care about the deficit. They are willing to give that away. What they care about is dominance in advanced industries.”

So, just to sum up: The president of the United States is so desperate to cut deals that it appears he is willing to make far more concessions than he should.  And, unfortunately, it would appear that Ambassador Haley is correct: He isn’t talking to very many people before inking these agreements. The man of action is acting in ways that contravene the national interest.

Donald Trump wants to be known as the dealmaking president. He’s making deals, but all of the available evidence suggests that he is getting played.