Donald Trump’s recurring criticism of his predecessor is that he just didn’t know how to make a deal. “Obama is not a natural deal maker,” he tweeted in 2016, complaining that there was no accord on Syria. “Obama will attack Iran because of his inability to negotiate properly,” he predicted incorrectly back in 2013. Trump was scathing about President Obama’s lack of legislative success, pronouncing him “unable to negotiate w/ Congress.” “We need leaders who can negotiate great deals for Americans,” Trump tweeted in 2015, and the implication was obvious — he was the ultimate deal-maker.
It is almost 500 days into the Trump administration. Where are the deals? Where is the renegotiated NAFTA, the bilateral trade agreements that were going to replace the Trans-Pacific Partnership, the new and improved Iran nuclear pact, the China trade deal? Trump’s record in Congress is even less impressive. He has not been able to strike an accord with Democrats on anything, from immigration to infrastructure. The world is laughing at us, as he would say.
Well, what must the world be thinking now, as it watches the Trump administration careen wildly on everything from North Korea to China? What must it have thought as it watched the master negotiator in a televised session with congressional leaders on immigration, where he seemed to agree with the Democratic position, then agree with the (incompatible) Republican position, all the while asserting that they were going to make a deal? They didn’t.
By now it is obvious that Trump is actually a bad negotiator, an impulsive, emotional man who ignores briefings, rarely knows details, and shoots first and asks questions later.
Consider how the administration has handled the North Korea summit. First, the meeting was announced with great fanfare, with Trump soon lavishing praise on Kim Jong Un. Agreeing to the meeting was an enormous symbolic concession to the North Koreans, while getting almost nothing in return. This was to be a head-of-state summit, though there was little preparation and no determination that the two sides were close enough to have a serious negotiation at that level. Trump got excited enough to start hyping the prospects for a breakthrough agreement despite little evidence of any movement in the North Korean position. Next, Trump’s advisers embarked on a strange series of comments that seemed designed to threaten, scare and intimidate North Korea. Was this the plan? Did the administration regret its early overtures? Or was this all just incompetence? Is it any wonder that the whole thing has collapsed?
Trump has been even more ham-handed in his dealings with China. Just before entering the White House, he dangled the possibility of recognizing Taiwan. Beijing quickly shut down contact with the United States and, humiliatingly, Trump had to walk back his comments in a phone call with President Xi Jinping.
The current trade talks with China are a case study in bad negotiations. It’s hard to know where to begin. The U.S. government does not seem to know what it wants. Some days it appears that Washington is fixated on the size of the trade deficit. Other days it focuses on technology transfer and the theft of intellectual property. The White House began its attacks by imposing tariffs on steel, which mostly affected American allies, ensuring that it had no partners in its attempt to pressure the Chinese. After insisting that no countries would be exempted, the administration once again reversed course and doled out exemptions to the top five steel exporters to the U.S, though it threatens to reverse itself again.
American negotiators leak furiously to the press to undermine each other’s positions and even squabbled among themselves in front of a Chinese delegation earlier this month. Trump himself seems to switch gears repeatedly. After his administration announced that it would punish ZTE, a huge Chinese tech company that committed serious trade violations, Trump suddenly changed his mind, citing concern for the impact on Chinese jobs. Imagine the outcry if Obama had backed away from pressure on the Chinese to help their economy!
On the legislative front, Trump chose to begin his presidency with the divisive issue of health care rather than a unifying one like infrastructure — and failed to get Obamacare repealed anyway. Oh, and don’t forget, he and son-in-law Jared Kushner were going to broker the ultimate deal, peace between the Israelis and Palestinians. How’s that going?
As talks fail, deals collapse and negotiations founder, Trump continues to tweet triumphantly about his great success. It makes one realize the president’s true talent. He has the confidence, bravado and skill to market failure as success. He can take a mediocre building, slap some gold paint on it and then convince people it’s a super-luxury condominium. Call it the Art of the Spin.
Fareed Zakaria is a columnist with The Washington Post. His email address is [email protected].