Many people have compared Donald Trump to a mob boss. But I’m starting to think that the comparison is unfair — to mob bosses.
After all, you can’t build an empire, even a criminal empire, unless people believe that your word is worth something. They have to believe both that you’ll honor your promises and that you’ll make good on your threats. The first few times you renege on agreements it may look as if you’re being smart and other people are being suckers; but soon they’ll take your measure, and realize that you’re actually the guy who can be rolled.
I’ve been thinking about this reality over the past few days, as we’ve watched two separate Trump administration debacles unfold.
The biggest debacle, the one that has many of us feeling a bit ashamed to be Americans, is, of course, the betrayal of the Kurds. We don’t really know why Trump so casually abandoned allies who have fought and died on our behalf, but one thing is clear: Turkey’s President Recep Erdogan took Trump’s measure, decided that his threats to retaliate against Turkey’s effective invasion of Kurdish territory were empty, and seized the moment.
But there was another, lower-key debacle involving China. Trump has, of course, made a trade war with China the centerpiece of his economic policy, inflicting substantial harm on both economies along the way. Last week, however — perhaps realizing the weakness of his domestic position as the march to impeachment gathers momentum — he seemingly decided to declare victory and retreat, proclaiming that he had a deal with China that, even by his own officials’ description, sounded like getting nothing China hasn’t been offering all along.
But it was actually worse than that. Acute observers quickly pointed out that all we had was a unilateral announcement by U.S. officials that there was a deal, which should be treated with skepticism until and unless we got an explicit joint statement of what had been agreed.
And sure enough, yesterday the Chinese basically said, “Oh, that deal? Well, we’re thinking about it. Let’s talk some more.”
In other words, like Turkey’s Erdogan — and, actually, North Korea’s Kim Jong Un a while back — they’ve taken Trump’s measure and decided that he can be rolled.
The point is that Trump’s actual art of the deal, which involves making promises you intend to break whenever it seems convenient, only works if you can keep finding fresh suckers to cheat. If there are people you have to deal with repeatedly, like the leaders of other nations, they eventually figure out both that you can’t be trusted and that you needn’t be feared: your promises are empty, but so are your threats.
All of this has vastly weakened America. We used to be a country of great power but even greater influence, because we had principles other nations could count on us to follow. Now we have a leader whom other leaders see as malleable — an unprincipled and ill-informed guy who can be flattered, bribed or simply fooled into giving them what they want.
Making America great again, indeed.
Three decades ago, Donald J. Trump waged a public battle with the talk show host Merv Griffin to take control of what would become Mr. Trump’s third Atlantic City casino. Executives at Mr. Trump’s company warned that the casino would siphon revenue from the others. Analysts predicted the associated debt would crush him.
The naysayers would be proved right, but throughout the turmoil Mr. Trump fixated on just one outcome: declaring himself a winner and Mr. Griffin a loser.
As president, Mr. Trump has displayed a similar fixation in his standoff with Congress over leveraging a government shutdown to gain funding for a wall on the Mexican border. As he did during decades in business, Mr. Trump has
- insulted adversaries,
- undermined his aides,
- repeatedly changed course,
- extolled his primacy as a negotiator and
- induced chaos.
“He hasn’t changed at all,” said Jack O’Donnell, who ran a casino for Mr. Trump in the 1980s and wrote a book about it. “And it’s only people who have been around him through the years who realize that.”
..Mr. Trump was expected to sign off on the deal, but then came the suggestion from conservative critics that he had caved in to Democrats — that he was a loser. It was a perception Mr. Trump could not bear, and he quickly reversed course.
He also reverted to lifelong patterns in business. People who worked with him during those years say they see multiple parallels between Mr. Trump the businessman and Mr. Trump the steward of the country’s longest government shutdown.
His lack of public empathy for unpaid federal workers echoes his treatment of some construction workers, contractors and lawyers whom he refused to pay for their work on his real estate projects. The plight of the farmers and small-business owners wilting without the financial support pledged by his administration harks back to the multiple lenders and investors who financed Mr. Trump’s business ventures only to come up shortchanged.
And his ever-changing positions (I’ll own the shutdown; you own the shutdown; the wall could be steel; it must be concrete; then again, it could be steel) have left heads in both parties spinning. Even after his televised proposal on Saturday to break the deadlock, Mr. Trump has no progress to show.
That book, published in 1987, was intended to be an autobiography of Mr. Trump, who was 41 at the time. Mr. Schwartz said that he created the idea of Mr. Trump as a great deal maker as a literary device to give the book a unifying theme. He said he came to regret the contribution as he watched Mr. Trump seize on the label to sell himself as something he was not — a solver of complicated problems.
Rather, Mr. Schwartz said, Mr. Trump’s “virtue” in negotiating was his relentlessness and lack of concern for anything but claiming victory.
“If you don’t care what the collateral damage you create is, then you have a potential advantage,” he said. “He used
- a hammer,
- relentlessness and
- an absence of conscience
as a formula for getting what he wanted.”
In a brief telephone interview on Sunday, Mr. Trump was not specific in defending his tactics, but he described himself as successful in his chosen fields of real estate, entertainment and finally politics. “I ran for office once and I won,” Mr. Trump said.
The president’s supporters say he gets an unfair rap as a poor negotiator, saying that his style and unusual approach — and unwillingness to accept defeat even in the worst situations — have often had positive results. And in a Washington that doesn’t like outsiders, he has clearly forced his adversaries out of their comfort zones.
“President Trump’s success in business has translated into success as president,” Sarah Huckabee Sanders, the White House press secretary, said. “He’s
- ignited a booming economy with
- rising wages and
- historically low unemployment,
- negotiated better trade deals,
- persuaded our allies to contribute their fair share to NATO, and
- secured the release of American hostages around the world.”
.. The bank eventually settled with Mr. Trump, saving him from having to pay the $40 million. Mr. Trump expressed his gratitude to the lawyer who fought on his behalf by not fully paying his bill. “He left me with some costs,” said the lawyer, Steven Schlesinger.
From the time he built his first Manhattan apartment building, Mr. Trump left a string of unpaid tabs for the people who worked for him.
The undocumented Polish workers who did the demolition work for that first building, Trump Tower, eventually won a $1.375 million settlement. Since then, scores of lawyers, contractors, engineers and waiters have sued Mr. Trump for unpaid bills or pay. Typically, he responds by asserting that their work did not meet his standard.
That might sound familiar to furloughed federal workers. Mr. Trump recently retweeted an article, attributed to an anonymous senior official in his administration, arguing that 80 percent of federal workers do “nothing of external value” and that “furloughed employees should find other work, never return and not be paid.”
Mr. Trump has claimed, without evidence, that “maybe most” federal workers going without pay are “the biggest fan” of his use of the shutdown to fund a border wall. In ordering thousands back to work without pay, he has put the pain for the shutdown on them.
Mr. Trump has also embraced his business practice of giving the most latitude and trust to family members, no matter their prior experience.
He put his first wife, Ivana, a model, in charge of an Atlantic City casino and the Plaza Hotel in Manhattan. He put his younger brother, Robert, who had some background in corporate finance, in senior positions at the casinos. Not long after three of his children graduated from college, he vested authority in them over golf courses, hotels and licensing deals.
.. In the White House, Mr. Trump has increasingly leaned on his son-in-law, Jared Kushner, for guidance on dealing with Congress amid the current stalemate. Mr. Kushner, who like Mr. Trump is the son of a wealthy real estate developer, has not always impressed old hands on Capitol Hill.
.. With Democrats now in charge of the House of Representatives, Mr. Trump also has a new set of adversaries, and other old habits from his years in business have re-emerged.
Through his Twitter feed, he has verbally pummeled Senator Chuck Schumer, the minority leader, and tried to drive a wedge between Mr. Schumer and his fellow Democrat, Speaker Nancy Pelosi.
.. Barbara Res, who said she enjoyed much about working for Mr. Trump as a construction executive in the 1980s and 1990s, sees in Ms. Pelosi a new challenge to Mr. Trump’s lifelong tactics. One blind spot she observed was that Mr. Trump “believes he’s better than anyone who ever lived” and saw even the most capable of women as easy to run over.
“But there was never a woman with power that he ran up against, until Pelosi,” she said. “And he doesn’t know what to do with it. He’s totally in a corner.”
In the interview, Mr. Trump described Ms. Res, Mr. O’Donnell and Mr. Schwartz as disgruntled workers whom he had shunted aside, who had experience with him for relatively brief periods and who were simply using his name for attention.
During his years in business, Mr. Trump rarely displayed an interest in details or expert opinions that might have informed whether his plans would actually work. That pattern has also emerged in the shutdown dispute.
Thirty years ago, his claimed defeat of Mr. Griffin turned out to be a Pyrrhic victory.
Within months of completing construction on his third casino, the Trump Taj Mahal, he could not pay interest to the bondholders who had financed the project. Having overpaid and overleveraged himself on other deals, banks forced him to turnover or sell almost everything.
His wealthy father helped bail him out. But Mr. Trump blamed everyone else. He fired nearly all his top executives and stopped paying contractors who had built the casino.
In describing the border wall, Mr. Trump has expressed unending confidence in its efficacy. Others, including Representative Will Hurd, a Republican whose Texas district includes part of the border with Mexico, have described it as a tall speed bump, nearly useless without technology to spot illegal crossings immediately and dispatch border agents to quickly respond.
Mr. O’Donnell, the casino manager, said long-term consequences never concerned Mr. Trump. He was always willing to pay too much in order to get a deal signed so he could declare victory, he said.
“He just wants to get the deal,” Mr. O’Donnell said.