President Trump, Deal Maker? Not So Fast
Posted June 22, 2018 7:40 p.m. EDT
WASHINGTON — President Donald Trump likes nothing more than presenting himself as the ultimate deal-maker, the master negotiator who can translate his success in business into the worlds of politics, policy and diplomacy. “That’s what I do, is deals,” he said one day last month.
Except that so far he has not. As he threw in the towel on immigration legislation Friday, saying that Republicans should give up even trying until after the fall midterm elections, Trump once again fell short of his promise to make “beautiful” deals that no other president could make.
His 17 months in office have in fact been an exercise in futility for the art-of-the-deal president. No deal on immigration. No deal on health care. No deal on gun control. No deal on spending cuts. No deal on NAFTA. No deal on China trade. No deal on steel and aluminum imports. No deal on Middle East peace. No deal on the Qatar blockade. No deal on Syria. No deal on Russia. No deal on Iran. No deal on climate change. No deal on Pacific trade.
Even routine deals sometimes elude Trump, or he chooses to blow them up. After a Group of 7 summit this month with the world’s leading economic powers, Trump, expressing pique at Canada’s prime minister, refused to sign the carefully negotiated communiqué that his own team had agreed to. It was the sort of boilerplate agreement that every previous president had made over four decades.
“Trump is an anarchist,” said Jack O’Donnell, a former president of the Trump Plaza Hotel and Casino, who became a sharp critic. “It was his approach in business, it is his approach as president. It does not take good negotiating skills to cause chaos. Will this ever lead to concessions? Maybe, but concessions to what? Not anything that resembles a deal. I just do not see him getting much done.”
Ultimately, his advisers said, his hard-line positions that for now have left him at an impasse with negotiating partners should pay off in ways that did not for presidents like Barack Obama and George W. Bush. “I don’t think it’s that counterintuitive to say that playing hardball will lead to better trade deals eventually,” said Andy Surabian, a Republican strategist and former aide to Trump.
“We weren’t even talking about these under Obama or Bush,” he added. “There was no talking about renegotiating better trade deals. You couldn’t even get China to the table before Trump came along. We’ll see what the final outcome is, but it’s already a success just to get them to the table.”
Trump points to a few deals, notably the major tax-cutting package that passed late last year. But even that was negotiated mainly by Republican lawmakers, who said Trump did not seem engaged in the details. Nor did he secure the bipartisan support he had hoped for. And as legislative challenges go, handing out tax cuts without paying for them is not exactly the hardest thing politicians do.
As for foreign policy, Trump has taken great pride in his recent meeting with North Korea’s leader, Kim Jong Un, asserting that “I have solved that problem” after a decadeslong nuclear standoff and even musing that he deserves the Nobel Peace Prize. But there is no deal, at least not yet. There is a vague 391-word statement essentially agreeing to agree, an expression of a goal with no details.
In effect, the agreement with Kim is like a deal to sell parts of Trump Tower without settling on a price, date, inspection or financing. It is not nearly as advanced as agreements that President Bill Clinton and Bush made with North Korea, both of which ultimately collapsed.
Trump did secure the release of three Americans held prisoner by North Korea, much as President Barack Obama did with prisoners during his tenure. And he did win a promise by Kim to help repatriate the remains of U.S. soldiers killed during the Korean War. To be sure, these issues can be enormously complex and forging consensus can take time. Negotiations over such matters have frustrated more seasoned presidents with more bipartisan or internationalist instincts. Any judgment before the end of his four-year term may be premature.
But no modern president has sold himself on the promise of negotiating skills more than Trump has. He regularly boasts that deals will be “easy” and “quick” and the best ever.
Just this month, he predicted that “we’ll probably very easily make a deal” with Mexico and Canada to overhaul the North American Free Trade Agreement, but later made blistering attacks on both countries. He has pulled out of Obama’s Iran nuclear deal, Paris climate accord and Trans-Pacific Partnership, but promises to negotiate better versions of those deal have gone nowhere.
When he took office, Trump set his sights on what he called “the ultimate deal,” meaning peace between the Israelis and Palestinians. He said it was “frankly maybe not as difficult as people have thought.” A year later, his team is only now preparing to release a plan. But after Trump’s decision to move the U.S. Embassy to Jerusalem, the Palestinian Authority is no longer on speaking terms with the White House.
“What the president seemingly fails to understand is that in foreign policy and in trade policy — unlike in real estate transactions — the parties are all repeat players,” said Daniel M. Price, who advised Bush on trade negotiations. “The country you insult or seek undue advantage over today you will have to work with again tomorrow.”
Trump’s approach has been to make expansive demands and apply as much pressure as he can. He argues that crushing sanctions he imposed on North Korea forced Kim to meet. He now hopes to extract concessions from China, Canada and Europe after slapping punishing tariffs on them.
“Trump is a bilateral player, in part because that’s what he is used to from his building days, but also because he keeps himself the king, the decider, the strongman,” said Wendy Sherman, who was Obama’s lead negotiator on the Iran nuclear deal. “In the case of North Korea, however, he wouldn’t have gotten this far — which isn’t all that far — without the South Koreans or the Chinese.”
When it comes to Congress, other presidents have run into walls of resistance by the opposition — what both Obama and Trump have called “obstructionism.” Some had hoped Trump might be able to bridge that divide because at different points he has been a Democrat and a Republican.
But with the exception of a short-term spending and debt deal that simply postponed difficult decisions, Trump has made no more progress with Democrats than Obama did with Republicans. When he gave up on immigration Friday, he blamed it on Senate Democrats, even though the immediate impasse was among House Republicans who do not need the other party to pass a bill.
“Republicans should stop wasting their time on Immigration until after we elect more Senators and Congressmen/women in November,” he wrote on Twitter. “Dems are just playing games, have no intention of doing anything to solves this decades old problem. We can pass great legislation after the Red Wave!”
It was in effect an acknowledgment by Trump that he cannot reach across the aisle and can only govern with Republicans. Trump is right that Republicans, who have 51 seats in the Senate, need Democrats to muster the 60 votes needed to overcome any filibuster. But no major political strategist is projecting that Republicans could actually win nine more seats this fall, meaning that Trump’s party would still need Democrats even after the election.
Surabian, the former Trump aide, said the challenge on immigration is that the president has to grapple not just with Democrats but also with Republicans who do not share his philosophy on the issue. “We’re not just talking about a normal negotiation,” he said. “It’s a lot more complicated.” O’Donnell, the former casino president, said Trump has always oversold his deal-making skills. The casino he managed, O’Donnell noted, brought in $100 million a year yet still went bankrupt. “The fact is, Trump casinos should have been one of the greatest success stories in the history of casino gambling, but bad deal-making caused him to lose all three properties,” he said.
Now the consequences are much higher. “Deal-making as president,” Sherman said, “is a multidimensional proposition where the stakes are war and peace, prosperity and depression.”