“President Trump was elected because he is an outstanding negotiator,” said White House spokesman Brian Morgenstern recently regarding the recent stimulus negotiations. He may have been elected in part due to this perception, but he is perhaps the worst presidential negotiator in U.S. history.
Let’s review the facts. What have his allegedly vaunted negotiation skills helped him accomplish in his three and a half years as president?
So far, his sole major domestic negotiation accomplishment is a $1.5 trillion tax cut passed when his own party controlled the White House and both houses of Congress. That’s not a great lift negotiation-wise.
Giving money back to the people has always been extremely popular with Republicans and Democrats. Since 1960, tax cuts were passed by Presidents Kennedy, Johnson, Nixon, Ford, Carter, Clinton, Bush 43, Obama and now Trump. And many of these required presidential negotiations with a congress controlled wholly or in part by the opposite party.
“Hold on,” Trump might say. “Look at the recent CARES Act that saved our economy.”
Here’s the problem: Trump didn’t engage in the actual negotiations. In fact, Trump refused to even meet with the Administration’s main counterparts, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi or Sen. Minority Leader Chuck Schumer.
Of course, Trump likely played a behind-the-scenes role in setting the overall direction. He did tell his lead negotiator, Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin, to “think big.”
But setting strategic direction is very different than sitting at the table trading higher unemployment benefits for greater small business loans.
Now, no one expects presidents to do all the wheeling and dealing involved in major legislation. But usually they get involved, at the least, near the end and break an impasse, make a significant offer to move the process forward, and/or just push it over the goal line.
And the most effective presidential negotiators, like President Lyndon B. Johnson in working to pass the Great Society programs, get involved from start to finish. Johnson deeply understood the negotiation buttons to push and how to leverage the power of relationships, according to Pulitzer Prize-winning biographer Robert Caro.
Recent Presidents like Clinton, Bush 41 and Obama also hammered out compromises one-on-one with key legislators and congressional leaders on issues like welfare reform, budget deals and health policy.
Trump was not even in the room during an incipient financial crisis where the negotiations to forestall an economic disaster actually happened.
But maybe Trump was smart not to be in the room. After all, his major negotiations with Congress failed when he took a hands-on role.
His first big negotiation with Congress was his 2017 effort to repeal and replace Obamacare. He initially couldn’t even get this through the House, despite a significant Republican majority.
He did get it through on his second try. But even then, his active involvement reflected an utter lack of knowledge about policy. And in the end, he lost it in the Senate with Sen. John McCain’s famous thumbs down vote. It’s no coincidence Trump had famously disparaged McCain’s war record during his campaign.
Trump’s other noteworthy domestic negotiations also proved ineffective, with no major domestic deals except criminal justice reform. His Oval Office negotiations with congressional leaders on immigration, which included his famous “shithole countries” comment, was even a notorious embarrassment.
He didn’t fare any better on the international negotiation front, either, despite presidents having more authority there.
No effective constraints on North Korea despite three personal summits with Kim Jong Un (where he gave Kim huge public relations wins with the U.S. getting nothing in return). Nothing preventing Iran from developing nuclear weapons despite pulling out of the Iran nuclear deal. No impactful legislation preventing Russia from interfering again in our elections or on arms control. Nothing with getting Mexico to pay for a “big, beautiful wall.”
In fact, the U.S. has gone backward on all these fronts during his presidency.
True, Trump has had some negotiation wins internationally. Re-negotiating NAFTA was a plus, although not on the scale of other presidents’ international negotiation accomplishments (like Kennedy with the Cuban Missile Crisis, Reagan and arms control, Bush 41 and negotiating the end of the Cold War and the coalition to get Iraq out of Kuwait).
Keep in mind, also, the “New NAFTA” only made a handful of token changes and fundamentally extended a 30 year agreement that benefited the parties for decades.
What about the China Phase One Trade Deal and the Israel-UAE-Bahrain normalization deal? On China, it has yet to fulfill its commitments, and few experts believe it will fundamentally change its trade behavior or internal economic policies due to the deal. It’s even having a record year for exports now.
The Middle East deal is a win. But was Trump personally engaged? There’s little evidence of it. Plus, if so, he almost certainly would have incessantly bragged about it.
Bottom line: Trump’s presidential negotiations constitute a case study in how not to negotiate. His counterproductive tactics have been well-documented during his presidency and his 40 years in business: demeaning name-calling, often empty threats, ineffectual bluffing, fake deadlines, flat-out lying, elevating personal self-interest over everything, contempt for legal parameters, over-the-top puffery, and going solely with his gut and failing to do even basic homework.
The result was predictable – an “F” in presidential negotiations.
Marty Latz is the author of The Real Trump Deal: An Eye-Opening Look at How He Really Negotiates and Gain the Edge! Negotiating To Get What You Want.
He is the founder of Latz Negotiation, a national negotiation training and consulting company that helps individuals and organizations achieve better results with best practices based on the experts’ research. He can be reached at 480.951.3222 or [email protected].