'Master Dealmaker' No More

A good negotiator knows when he's lost the advantage. Not Trump.

Um, yeah. About that Oval Office meeting Tuesday. It was, like, a doozy. But … seriously. Let’s get something out of the way: Donald Trump doesn’t have leverage.

The president sure thinks he does, and Nancy Pelosi surely knows that he thinks he does. The House leader tried explaining to him that he doesn’t, but in trying to explain that he doesn’t, she ended up hardening his belief that he does.

She later hinted that if he shuts down the government, that’s on him. House Democrats will open it back up (with a “clean CR”) come January, and the bill will pass both chambers, because Senate Republicans know they don’t have leverage, and will demand the president sign it. (Trump said Senate Democrats were standing in the way of his border wall, so he’d blame them for a government shutdown. But if Pelosi passes a “continuing resolution” without wall funding, it will be up to the Senate to pass or kill it. That means, one way or another, a shutdown will be on Donald Trump.)

The other thing to get out of the way is that Tuesday’s spectacle was precisely that, and probably nothing else. Yes, House Republicans are making some noise about backing up the president’s claim of having all the House votes he needs to get money for a border wall. But given how handily Pelosi is dealing with this president, my guess is that she knows where the votes are, and that the president does not have, and will never have, enough votes in the House, even though the GOP still controls it.

I’d expect Trump to cave, as he did last week in agreeing to a two-week extension of government funding. The president entered Tuesday’s televised negotiation with nothing, and he’s going to leave with nothing—except an indelible image of himself as a master dealmaker who can’t negotiate his way out of a brown paper bag.

Washington, if you haven’t guessed, is a prudish place exceedingly sensitive to matters of etiquette. Perhaps that’s as it should be, as the nation’s capital is where powerful people make important decisions affecting millions here and around the world.

But sensitivity to decorum can mean blindness to method. The news this morning was about two parties clashing in a “heated discussion,” and about a president vowing, amazingly, to take responsibility for a government shutdown.

(It was also about Schumer “dunking” on Trump in front of a national audience, and Pelosi’s brilliance. The AP: She told Democrats privately, "He said at the end of the meeting, he said, 'We can go two routes with this meeting: with a knife or a candy. I said, 'Exactly.'" The Times: Pelosi told aides afterward that the border wall is “like a manhood thing for him. As if manhood could ever be associated with him.”)

Missing from the coverage is something obvious, or that should be obvious given that it was televised: You can’t negotiate with someone who can’t stop lying, who won’t recognize basic political truths, and who is willing to hurt himself to hurt opponents.

Yes, it was funny when Pelosi said, “Mr. President, please don’t characterize the strength that I bring to this meeting as the Leader of the House Democrats who just won a big victory.” She was doing what no Republican has done, which was not accepting Trump’s nonsense, and moving ahead on her own agenda.

What she was trying to do, however, is get the president to see that he did not have the advantage, that the Democrats were willing to give him money for border security, not a wall, because, she said, that’s a “way to effectively honor our responsibilities.” But she said the president could not have more, because, well, he wasn’t in a position to ask for more. Schumer said as much when he said: “Elections have consequences.”

But Trump refused to concede this plain fact. Moreover, he seemed to suggest he had the advantage, given that the economy has been humming along since 2016. It’s as if the GOP’s crushing losses in the House were moot. I suppose that’s what we can expect from a man who believes he’s a winner amid evidence to the contrary.

In response, Pelosi said, but no one has focused on: “What the President is representing in terms of his cards over there are not factual. We have to have to an evidence-based conversation about what does work, what money has been spent, and how effective it is.” She kept asking to hold the talks in private so she did not have to explain Trump’s political weakness in front of cameras. He refused.

Schumer urged Trump to understand that Democrats can’t and won’t negotiate with someone willing to blow himself up (i.e., do something politically hare-brained like partially closing the government because he didn’t get what he wants.) Schumer said: “The one thing I think we can agree on is we shouldn’t shut down the government over a dispute. And you want to shut it down. You keep talking about it.”

Schumer also tried getting Trump to concede that they can agree on one thing. He said: “The Washington Post today gave you a whole lot of Pinocchios because they say you constantly misstate how much the wall is—how much of the wall is built and how much is there. But that’s not the point here. We have a disagreement about the wall … whether it’s effective or it isn’t. Not on border security, but on the wall.”

But the president refused to take what was being handed to him.

One takeaway, and a good one, is that this meeting is a taste of what’s to come. There’s little these parties can agree on. But objective observers, and anyone desiring to understand what’s going on, should ask why the parties can’t agree.

It’s not because they are at loggerheads over facts, evidence and policy. The parties can’t agree, because the president can’t stop lying, won’t recognize basic political truths, and is willing to hurt himself to hurt political opponents.

—John Stoehr

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