"Deals are my art form. Other people paint beautifully on canvas or write wonderful poetry. I like making deals, preferably big deals." – Donald Trump, "The Art of the Deal"
President Donald Trump's supporters elected him, in part, because they saw him as a wily tycoon and deft dealmaker who could shake up Washington and bring decades of business know-how to the Oval Office.
He was always ready to tap into those beliefs. "We need a PRESIDENT with strength, stamina, heart and incredible deal making skill if our country is ever going to be able to prosper again!" he tweeted a few months after launching his presidential bid in 2015.
Trump, in reality, was never a peerless or even a particularly skillful dealmaker and many of the most significant business transactions he engineered imploded. Instead, he made his way in the world as an indefatigable self-promoter, a marketing confection and a human billboard who frequently licensed his name to buildings and products paid for by others.
In Trump's professional life, his inept dealmaking often came home to roost in unmanageable debts and serial bankruptcies. In his more recent political and presidential life it has revealed itself through bungled, hapless efforts to overturn the Affordable Care Act; forge a nuclear agreement with North Korea; wage trade wars with China, Mexico and Canada; retain control of the House of Representatives; turn military and diplomatic strategy on its head; lay siege to sensible immigration policy; and, now, force a government shutdown to secure funding for a prized project – a wall along the U.S.'s southern border.
Striking lasting deals requires intimacy with the finer points of what every party wants out of a negotiation, realistic goals, maturity, patience, flexibility – and enough leverage so the other side can't simply stall or walk away from the table. Trump hasn't met any of those prerequisites in his repeated efforts to fulfill his campaign promise to build a wall, a promise that played to the most xenophobic and bigoted portion of his base while not addressing any of the real shortcomings or necessary enhancements of federal immigration policy.
"Policy" and "Trump" don't really co-exist, of course. The president lacks the interest or sophistication to steep himself in policy details, so he enters the immigration debate and dealmaking for his wall at a distinct disadvantage. For as much as he disparages politicians and public service, Trump is surrounded by Democrats and Republicans who have immersed themselves in immigration discussions for years. Expertise does matter, after all – and Trump doesn't have it.
The most visible reminder of the raw amateurism that has undermined Trump's dealmaking came in December during a memorable White House visit with a pair of Democrats, Representative Nancy Pelosi and Senator Charles Schumer. As the trio gradually became unsettled over policy differences that could lead to a government shutdown, Trump, ready to perform for the media he had invited to observe the chat, sallied forth in a burst of bravado."I am proud to shut down the government for border security," Trump told Schumer. "I will take the mantle. I will shut it down. I'm not going to blame you for it."Unforced error.
Trump – undoubtedly content to prove he's willing to burn things down to get his own way – needlessly publicized himself as the author of the shutdown that ultimately arrived. Hmmm. Let's think about that. Doesn't every politician in Washington with a sense of the town's history know that voters grow weary of government shutdowns and tend not to like those responsible for them?
Newt Gingrich, whom Trump has occasionally solicited for input, surely knows this. Back in 1995 and 1996, when Gingrich was speaker of the House, then-President Bill Clinton maneuvered to hang a government shutdown around the speaker's neck – inflicting permanent political damage on the once-ascendant Gingrich.
A word to the wise: If you get saddled with a reputation as a guy who likes to blow up things it can be hard to orchestrate deals. ("President Trump is a terrible negotiator," Schumer recently said, highlighting how much leverage the president has lost in the wall negotiations.)
Trump also missed chances last year, when Republicans still controlled the House, to seal deals that might have given him significantly more funding for a wall than the $5 billion he wants – and is unlikely to get – now. Early in the year, hampered by his inability to be flexible or understand the other side's needs, Trump opposed a bipartisan Senate proposal that offered $25 billion for a wall as long as a path to citizenship was opened for 1.7 million young, undocumented immigrants living in the U.S.
Just before Christmas, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell got Republicans behind a short-term funding package to keep the government open until February. That proposal didn't include money for a wall, and Trump was prepared to support it until backlash from conservative media pundits Ann Coulter, Rush Limbaugh and Laura Ingraham convinced him to retreat. Lacking clear goals for a deal – did he want to keep the government open or did he want to dig in behind a wall? – Trump left his own party befuddled and empowered Democrats.
In recent days, Schumer and Pelosi have said they're unwilling to give Trump more than $1.3 billion to build a border fence (not a wall) and that they won't commit taxpayer funds to Trump's wall. The president responded that he then would be willing to leave the government unfunded and shuttered indefinitely – a posture he is unlikely to be able to maintain and a negotiating strategy for which few in his White House or his party had been prepared.
Good dealmakers prepare their teams so they can get the support they need to move a negotiation across the finish line. But Trump has apparently overlooked the fact that his administration's signature accomplishments – landing two conservative justices on the Supreme Court, pushing through a major tax overhaul, and passing criminal justice reform – had been initiated and guided by Republican dealmakers more able than him.
Building a wall, on the other hand, has been Trump's personal piece of performance art and he has invoked fantasies to promote it (like, for example, compelling Mexico to foot the bill). He has also become so emotionally attached to the effort that he's put himself at a strategic disadvantage. The president is now so consumed with appearing to win, that he may not win at all.
Left reeling and desperate, he said on Friday and again on Sunday that he may declare a national emergency on the southern border so he can simply appropriate the taxpayer funds he wants. Such a move may not even be legal, would prompt Democrats to file a lawsuit to stop him regardless, and is likely to further alienate some Republicans worn down by his antics.
This, however, is who the president is. He's focused on fostering his own, carnivalesque image, and he has little real interest in policy outcomes. And he's been here before.
In 1988, he overpaid in a deal for the Plaza Hotel because he was irrationally enamored of the property. A few years later he lost it in bankruptcy. Around the same time, he bungled negotiations for another project that would have made him a transformative figure in New York real estate because he couldn't exercise the restraint, foresight and financial discipline needed to get the deal done. In 1996, he passed on selling a stake in one of his casinos that would have netted him about $180 million and helped prop up his struggling Atlantic City operation because he didn't want his name removed from the property.
None of those episodes humbled him.
"We need a dealmaker in the White House, who knows how to think innovatively and make smart deals," he tweeted back in 2011.
We still don't have one.