President Trump Is a Better Dealbreaker Than Dealmaker
Susan B. Glasser/ The New Yorker
26 مايو 2018
t 8:30 P.M. on Wednesday, I was speaking with a senior Administration official involved in the preparations for President Trump’s summit with the North Korean leader, Kim Jong Un. The chances, the official told me, were still “seventy-thirty” that the summit would happen, in Singapore, on June 12th, despite increasingly jittery statements from both sides in recent days. By the time we talked again, after dinner, however, the prospects seemed to be dropping by the minute. The North Koreans had released a new statement in the hour since we had first spoken, calling remarks by Vice-President Mike Pence “ignorant and stupid” and threatening to cancel the meeting and, instead, proceed with a “nuclear-to-nuclear showdown.” “I saw that,” the official said, referring to the bellicose new statement. “Well, maybe it’s down to sixty-forty, but the point is we are planning for it.”
Already, though, it was clear that the summit, which so recently had Trump openly musing about his prospects for a Nobel Peace Prize, was in serious doubt, and the official repeatedly returned to the question of the blame game that could ensue if the talks collapsed. He had been reviewing the long history of unsuccessful nuclear negotiations with North Korea, spanning three generations of the Kim family, and had concluded that, no matter what the facts, there was always an aggressive fight to affix responsibility. “Whenever talks have failed with North Korea,” the Administration official observed, “it’s been because of North Korea.”
On Thursday morning, Trump called off the summit, writing in a testy letter to Kim that he was cancelling the meeting, “based on the tremendous anger and hostility displayed in your most recent statement.” The blame game, it seemed, had already begun.
Even before the collapse of the North Korea negotiations, it was clear that this week was not going to do much for Trump’s vaunted self-image as a dealmaker. Not only were the prospects for the Kim meeting in doubt, there were setbacks regarding Trump’s two other top priorities: China and Iran.
On Monday morning, after a weekend of negotiations with China, Trump appeared to be abruptly backing off his threat to launch a trade war with Beijing, without winning any major concessions. “It’s absolutely stunning how we snatched defeat from the jaws of victory,” Trump’s former chief strategist, Steve Bannon, a huge proponent of Trump’s earlier strategy of confrontation, told the Times. “Sadly China is out-negotiating the administration & winning the trade talks right now,” the Republican Senator Marco Rubio, of Florida, a free-trader whose views are generally the opposite of Bannon’s, tweeted on Tuesday. By Wednesday evening, Trump’s Treasury Secretary, Steve Mnuchin, and his Commerce Secretary, Wilbur Ross, rushed up to the Capitol for an emergency session with a half-dozen unhappy Republican senators. The attendees were mad at Trump, but for different reasons than Bannon. They pressed for an explanation as to why, exactly, Trump seemed to be granting concessions to a Chinese telecom company, ZTE, that has been crippled by U.S. sanctions that prevent it from buying American components. The answer appeared to be a personal, direct request to Trump from the Chinese leader, Xi Jinping, amid the broader talks over Trump’s threat of sweeping trade tariffs. That explanation, though, failed to appease the senators. An attendee at the meeting told me later that he anticipated there could be more than seventy votes in the Senate to block Trump legislatively on the matter. This is not generally what winning looks like.
On Iran, meanwhile, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo rolled out on Monday what the White House billed as “our new Iran strategy.” Pompeo called for a sweeping new accord that Iran and the Europeans would somehow agree to after Trump blew up the old Iran deal. The Administration’s new strategy was quickly dismissed as unrealistic and a non-starter by many European allies and former Obama Administration officials still furious over Trump’s unilateral withdrawal from a pact that took years to negotiate. “Pompeo’s Iran Plan Is a Pipe Dream,” a headline in Foreign Policy said, hours after the speech. Soon after the article was posted, Pompeo tweeted furiously in response, “It’s not a pipe dream to ask the Iranian leadership to behave like a normal, responsible country.” The senior Administration official said he, too, was ticked off about the Iran criticism. “We haven’t even begun negotiations,” the official said, but, inside the Beltway bubble, “everyone is preëmptively declaring it dead? This is ridiculous.”
Commentators, of course, quickly blamed all of it on a President who loves to brag about accomplishments, regardless of whether they are, in fact, accomplished. “Trump’s art of the self-harming deal,” the Financial Times’s chief U.S. columnist, Ed Luce, wrote. “Apparently he is not a strong dealmaker at all,” the Washington Post’s Jennifer Rubin wrote. “Artless negotiation from the President who penned the ‘Art of the Deal,’ ” the Times’s DealBook editor-at-large, Andrew Ross Sorkin, offered. And that was all before Thursday morning’s announcement that the summit with North Korea was off, and, with it, Trump’s hopes for a nuclear deal to end all deals.
On Tuesday, at a meeting with South Korean President Moon Jae-in in the Oval Office, Trump seemed to signal where it was all headed. Speaking to reporters, the President delivered a mini-lecture about the perils of dealmaking. “Whether the deal gets made or not, who knows? It’s a deal. Who knows? You never know about deals. You go into deals that are one hundred per cent certain, it doesn’t happen. You go into deals that have no chance, and it happens, and sometimes happens easily,” Trump told the reporters. “I made a lot of deals. I know deals, I think, better than anybody knows deals. You never really know.”
Sixteen months into the Trump Presidency, it is finally time to say: we really do know. There are no deals with Trump, and there are increasingly unlikely to be. Not on NAFTA. Not on Middle East peace. Or Obamacare or infrastructure. On tax cuts, the one big deal that did get passed, Republicans in Congress agreed to give their grandchildren’s money to American corporations and wealthy families and put it all on the nation’s credit card; Trump championed it but, by all accounts, played little role in shaping the legislation, and did nothing to build consensus with skeptical Democrats. On North Korea, Trump spontaneously (and over the fears of his advisers) agreed to meet a dictator whose family, for three generations, has made the acquisition of nuclear weapons the centerpiece of its national security; Trump’s negotiating strategy was to demand that the Kim dynasty completely give them up. How surprised are we that it didn’t work out?
No, Trump is a much better dealbreaker than dealmaker. He’s pulled out of the Paris climate accords and the Trans-Pacific Partnership, and just a couple weeks ago followed through on his threats to blow up the Iran nuclear deal negotiated by his predecessor, which he long ago labelled “the worst deal ever.” So isn’t it about time to stop buying into Trump as the great dealmaker he ceaselessly proclaims himself to be?
There has always been a disparity between Trump’s self-promotion as the master negotiator and the reality. Beyond the myth he sold on the campaign trail, Trump’s is a history of business deals that often went south—the casinos, the football team, the airline, the multiple bankruptcies. So it’s not just that he misjudged the challenge of making deals as a rookie President, although that seems to be part of it. (Remember when he said that making peace in the Middle East would be “frankly maybe not as difficult as people have thought”?) Trump seems to believe that saying he’s a master negotiator over and over again is the same thing as actually being one. “I’m a great dealmaker,” he said in March. “That’s what I do.” Except that he doesn’t. Trump’s luck could change. All the harrumphing and the threatening and the maximalist demands could eventually lead to “beautiful” agreements. There have been moments when it looked like China, or Europe, might back down in the face of his tariff threats. But, broadly speaking, the record so far suggests that Trump’s foreign and domestic rivals are not bedazzled by his negotiating style.
Of course, Washington is always on the lookout for a grand bargain, a big deal, a master stroke. This is a collective habit that long predates Donald Trump. It is endemic to politics, where optimism persists even as cynical calculation rules the day. Barack Obama was going to make a grand bargain with congressional Republicans to solve our budget problems once and for all. George W. Bush was going to figure out how to fix the “third rail” of American politics by reforming Social Security. When Trump was elected, Vladimir Putin even dreamed of a new accord as sweeping as the one that divided Europe between the superpowers after the Second World War: his advisers bragged to U.S. officials of their plans for a “Yalta 2.”
When Kim first agreed to the summit, a similar bout of optimism swept Washington, and even hardened opponents of Trump started worrying that perhaps they had misread the President. It seemed that Trump might actually be able to deliver, by bluster and bullying, what decades of more polite diplomacy had failed to produce. What a difference a few weeks makes. At 9:46 A.M. on Thursday, the Associated Press broadcast its bulletin announcing the collapse of the talks. At 9:51 A.M., John Dingell, the nonagenarian Democrat from Michigan who had been the House of Representatives’ longest-serving member until he retired, a couple years ago, tweeted his response. “The Art of the Deal, baby,” he wrote.
As news of the cancelled summit broke, Pompeo was on Capitol Hill, testifying to the Foreign Relations Committee. The Secretary of State, who had devoted his first four weeks on the job to preparing around the clock for the summit, and even flying back and forth to Pyongyang, seemed uncomfortable as he read aloud the letter that Trump had sent to Kim moments earlier. “The President asked me to begin my testimony” in this way, Pompeo informed the committee.
As Pompeo read the entire Trumpian letter aloud (indeed, the White House later told reporters that the President personally dictated every word of it), I thought of Pompeo’s already long to-do list, captured by an A.P. photographer the day before, as Pompeo testified to the House Foreign Affairs Committee. There were twenty-two items, handwritten, in blue ink, with circles around each number. “CALL LAVROV,” No. 9 said, referring to the Russian foreign minister, who was reported to be heading to North Korea even as the summit’s fate was being determined. No. 10 said, “MEXICO AMBASSADOR.” No. 11 was “CARLOS SLIM,” as in the Mexican billionaire. No. 22 suggested there might be a bigger meeting on Pompeo’s agenda than the morning’s testy exchanges with Democratic House members: “PC ON IRAN,” which is Washington-speak for a Principals Committee meeting, the primary way in which members of the National Security Council convene to make major policy decisions. Nothing was checked off on the list. Pompeo still seemed to be in the process of making it.
Unfinished or not, there’s a calming certainty to such exercises, especially if you’re the Secretary of State, whose daily schedule is a whole catalogue of America’s many problems in the world. Trump’s decision to cancel the Singapore session with Kim may have scratched summit prep off Pompeo’s list, but the decision likely replaced one set of North Korea meetings with another. By the end of the day, with cable television in a full uproar over Trump’s personal lawyer attending a meeting with congressional leaders over the Justice Department investigation of the President, the North Korea summit seemed like a fast-receding memory. Never mind that Kim’s nuclear program was still intact, or that anxious allies in South Korea and Japan still needed to be reassured, or even find out what the heck had just happened. In the Trump Presidency, the to-do list gets longer, but it never goes away.