Trump Is the Worst Negotiator Ever

If that wasn't clear before the government shut down, it is now.

Go ahead, laugh.

But laughing isn’t helpful to understanding politics. I think it obscures more than it reveals among liberals who have a better grasp of the facts but little propensity to fight. We equate laughing with winning. Conservatives don’t. They confuse fighting with winning. But at least they fight (despite being allergic to facts and humor).

What’s so funny? The president. Donald Trump is in a standoff with Congressional Democrats over funding for a border wall. They have agreed to some money for border security, but not to what he wants for a wall. So he refused to sign a bipartisan bill keeping the government open. It’s been shut down for seven days.

That’s not the funny part, though. The funny part, if you want to call it that, came this morning when Trump tweeted that he would close the entire US-Mexican border if Congressional Democrats did not give him the money he wants—about $5 billion—to build a wall (or a fence or “steel slats”; he keeps using different phrasing).

On MSNBC this morning, Hallie Jackson asked retired Republican Congressman Chris Costello if there’s “on any planet, [or any] universe where the president would actually shut down the southern border.” Costello chortled before adding:

“The planet’s look a lot different every single time he tweets. I can’t even interpret some of his tweets anymore. The tweet the other day was somehow the shutdown money was going to be used to fund the border wall. I have no idea, on any planet, what that means.”

I confess. Trump often makes no sense. And I concede that mocking a world leader who can’t string a few basic English words together can be effective in eroding his power. But it’s not enough, because laughing at this buffoon of a president doesn’t help in understanding what’s really going on. (And in politics, there’s nearly always something that’s really going on; it’s our job to figure out what that is.)

Here’s the thing. Threatening to close the border if Democrats don’t pay up is extortion: “the practice of obtaining something, especially money, through force or threats.” This actually gives Democrats more incentive to say no than they had before Trump issued his threat. If they concede, the Democrats will have given Trump more reason to hold the government to ransom. If it worked once, it would work again.

The White House does not appear to understand that issuing threats gives the other side leverage. Mick Mulvaney, the president’s budget director, told Fox News this morning that Trump would stay in Washington through the New Year in the belief that Chuck Schumer, the Senate Democratic leader, was eager to strike a deal. That’s unlikely given that Schumer is subordinate to future House Speaker Nancy Pelosi. What is likely is this: Trump thinks extortion gives him the winning hand.

The president is giving the Democrats more incentive to say no is another way. The longer Trump holds the government to ransom, the more opportunity there is for the Democrats to highlight that fact. And the more opportunity they have to highlight the fact that Trump is holding the government to ransom, the more Democrats can demonstrate this president is nothing like the tycoon millions saw on television.

As Patrick Radden Keefe reported, Mark Burnett, of NBC’s “The Apprentice,” turned the head of quasi-criminal enterprise into something he wasn’t. He wrote that: “The Apprentice portrayed Trump not as a skeezy hustler who huddles with local mobsters but as a plutocrat with impeccable business instincts and unparalleled wealth—a titan who always seemed to be climbing out of helicopters or into limousines.”

Put another way, it was The Apprentice that sealed Trump’s reputation as a master negotiator. This despite a reality understood by people who worked at the Trump Organization that Trump is more likely to say yes to whatever’s proposed to him than he is to say no, because he’s almost always negotiating from a position of weakness.

Why? Because this “titan” was terrible at business. An ex-Trump Organization VP gave Politico an example from 1990. “He pretty much gave in to whatever they asked for,” said Barbara Res. “He was going broke. He really had nothing to bargain with. He caved. And he shouldn’t have—he should have tried. But he lost his nerve.”

It’s hard to say how this will end. The likely scenario is that House Democrats, come Jan. 3., will pass a bill reopening the government while still withholding money for a wall. (Basically, they’ll pass what the Senate had passed before Trump betrayed his party by refusing to sign the bill.) The House will pressure Senate Republicans to pass their own bill. And the president, because he’s weak, is probably going to sign it.

But everything will depend on public opinion.

According to a new poll by Reuters, most people blame Trump for the shutdown, some blame the Democrats but only a few blame the Republicans. In other words, Senate Republicans are free to appear supportive of a president still popular with the base while dodging accountability. That could create conditions for a kind of war of attrition. This shutdown could last much longer than any of us realize.

So laugh now if you must.

Later, this won’t be funny.

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Politics is bad! Politics is good! It’s complicated. That’s why there’s the Editorial Board. Delivered every business day, right in time for lunch, the Editorial Board seeks to find the signal amid a cacophony of noise. For $5 a month (or at a discounted rate of $55 a year), you get all this and so much more (like my enduring gratitude, which, I suppose, isn’t worth much, but there you go). Subscribe now! —JS

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