Though it is headed by a man who considers himself one of history’s greatest dealmakers, the Trump administration lately has been doing its best to avoid making deals.
The possibilities in foreign policy for a master negotiator are legion: There are Iran and North Korea with their nuclear programs; Venezuela, whose bankrupt regime presides over a major humanitarian crisis; and the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, which Trump once described as ripe for a “deal of the century.”
Yet in recent months, U.S. policy has seemingly been aimed not just at preventing accords on these problems but also at precluding bargaining by our would-be closer in chief.
Take the case of Iran. When he withdrew the United States from the multilateral deal limiting Tehran’s nuclear program, Trump said he was “ready, willing and able” to negotiate a new accord and confidently predicted that the regime of Ayatollah Ali Khamenei was “going to want to make a new and lasting deal.”
Instead, U.S. policy seeks to apply crushing pressure to the regime without offering it a way out. Last week, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo announced a bid to take Iranian oil exports “to zero” by threatening sanctions on the remaining buyers. The gambit might not work, but if it does, Tehran will face a potentially devastating economic crisis. And by Pompeo’s account, it could gain relief only if it meets a list of 12 demands adding up to a 180-degree reversal of its foreign policy.
As a practical matter, notes Ali Vaez of the International Crisis Group, “Washington’s present approach makes possible two scenarios, neither of which is promising.”
- Either Iran “digs in,” prompting the Trump administration to redouble its pressure; or it
- decides to resume its nuclear program to gain some leverage. Either way, Vaez argues, the non-negotiating strategy opens “a fraught and dangerous path.”
The administration has taken a similar approach to Venezuela, where it has imposed a drastic sanction against the regime of Nicolás Maduro — a ban on oil trade with the United States — while rejecting negotiations with his government. U.S. strategy is to force the Venezuelan military to remove Maduro and work out a transition plan with the opposition’s alternative government. But the generals have not budged, leaving Venezuelans to face a catastrophic decline in already dire living conditions.
As for the deal of the century, Trump son-in-law Jared Kushner and envoy Jason Greenblatt are expected to roll out their long-awaited Mideast peace plan in a month or two. But the administration has already sabotaged it by delivering a series of body blows to the Palestinians, from cutting off funding to the Palestinian Authority to moving the U.S. Embassy in Israel to Jerusalem.
Trump’s team seems to think it has given the Palestinians a necessary softening up. But those who know them better, such as longtime U.S. Mideast negotiator Dennis A. Ross, say it has merely triggered the deeply ingrained Palestinian penchant for defiance. Their leaders have refused to talk to Trump’s envoys since last year — and it’s probable they never will.
Then there is North Korea’s Kim Jong Un, with whom Trump has portrayed himself as negotiating. Only he hasn’t, really. At their last meeting in Hanoi, Trump proposed that the North Korean leader agree to surrender Pyongyang’s entire nuclear arsenal, plus its chemical and biological weapons, a whopping nonstarter. When Kim refused and made his own one-sided offer, Trump walked away.
The North Koreans had reason to be confounded. Before the summit, there were indications the administration would be open to a more incremental deal, in which North Korea would give up some of its nuclear capacity in exchange for limited U.S. concessions. When Trump instead struck his all-or-nothing stance, the regime blamed Pompeo and national security adviser John Bolton. Pyongyang has since demanded that Pompeo be dropped from future talks.
North Koreans are not known for rational political analysis, but in this case, they may be on to something. Bolton has a decades-long record of favoring force over diplomacy, while Pompeo has made a militantly uncompromising position toward Iran a trademark since his first election to Congress. It’s notable that the two don’t figure in the one notable negotiation in which the administration is engaged — with China over trade terms.
Trump’s first national security team, led by H.R. McMaster, Jim Mattis and Rex Tillerson, was devoted to curbing his most reckless impulses. Could it be that his second is trying to ensure that he makes no compromises?
There are lots of details and surprises to come, but the end game of this presidency seems as clear now as those of Iraq and the financial crisis did months before they unfolded.”
We are now in the end stages of the Trump presidency.” What is it that’s gone on in the last few weeks or months that’s made you think this?
Adam Davidson: For a year and a half now, I’m one of several reporters who’ve been studying intently Donald Trump’s businesses, his relationships with people around the world. And as a rule, this group of reporters finds it increasingly shocking just how flagrant the Trump Organization was in dealing with some of the shadiest—frankly, in cases, purely evil—people who made their money in wildly illegal and corrupt ways.
I do think most Americans, including Trump’s hardcore supporters, have a general sense that this is a guy who isn’t going to be a stickler for the rules, and has probably done some sort of technically illegal things or shady things. But I don’t think the full lawless and also kind of pathetic and lame nature of the Trump business has entered the national narrative in the way I think it should... I’m suspecting, but I can’t say for sure—that Michael Cohen will have recordings or emails that show that the Trump Organization knew they were basically helping fairly evil people continue their crimes by putting the Trump brand on their projects so as to make them less suspicious, I think we’re going find it very hard for an awful lot of Republicans to support... Do you think Donald Trump is a good businessman, as a businessman, setting aside ethics?
No, definitely not.
He has, in sort of financial terms, either lost money or certainly barely made money over the course of his career. So if you start with control of $200 million of your father’s money, and one alternative is you just invest that safely in the stock market, and the other alternative is you do whatever business you do, he has lost compared to that sort of benchmark, at least for much of the time frame that he’s been in business.
So that is just a sign of, “OK, he’s a rich man,” but it’s different to start as a rich man and end up as sort of roughly exactly as rich. That’s less impressive to real business people.
.. The other thing is, especially in the real estate industry, you want to see someone amassing wealth—that over time, their holdings, their empire, is bigger, not smaller, and they’re not going to be taking as wild a risk as they were when they were younger because they’ve been able to amass a kind of sustainable wealth, a bundle of assets that are really worth something.
We certainly see that. There’s certainly plenty of people in New York real estate who, over the course of Trump’s career, have done exactly that. He hasn’t. He’s this brash guy doing big, loud projects in the 1970s, and he’s a brash guy doing less big, less loud projects in the 2000s, and by 2010, he’s basically a failed real estate guy who then starts a new career as, basically, a pitchman.
.. he’s richer than I am, and I know his followers seem to see that as really relevant. But if you look at his peers, if you look at any sensible benchmark, this is not a guy who’s really impressing a lot of people.
.. Regardless of how many bankruptcies he had, or how he’s compared to other real estate developers, he made himself into a universally recognized brand. It seems to me that even most of us who were given $200 million of our father’s money could not do that, so I’m wondering what you think that is and how you think that fits or doesn’t fit with what you say is his not-very-good business sense.
.. Over the course of Donald Trump’s life, branding has become much more central to how American businesses strategize, how they measure their success, etc. To say the obvious thing that everyone points to, Coca-Cola is sugar water that has the Coca-Cola brand on it. But even Boeing and others are very aware of the brand as a central part of their value, and we’ve learned a lot about how to manage brand.
Brands are a new thing. They’re commonly understood to have started probably with Ivory soap, maybe 130 years ago—1879, I think—and have developed into one of the central tools of American business. I think there’s been a dramatic sea-change over the course of the ’70s and ’80s and how we manage brands, how we think about brands.
If the test is simply, “Have people heard of it?” then I guess a lot of people have heard of him. But if the test is, “Has he been able to monetize that brand? Has he been able to turn that into real brand value and sustaining brand value and growing brand value, so that each year the brand itself is worth more?” that is not the case... There are, I think, 14 Trump hotels in the world, and that’s a fairly stable number. When you look at the projects that he’s been doing over the last decade, there was an attempt at a Trump Baku, Azerbaijan, an attempt at a Trump Mumbai, an attempt at a Trump Uruguay. It’s nothing like the incredible expansion of Four Seasons or Ritz-Carlton.
From a branding standpoint, it’s a pretty pathetic business, and we saw that in the just throwing his name on anything, no matter how peripheral or lousy the product is. I think one of the many things we can learn from Trump support is that a lot of people conflate fame with success, and trappings of wealth with actual wealth.
.. [Michael Cohen’s ] main job was not as a lawyer of any kind. His main job was as a deal-maker, as a guy who would travel the country and the world looking for possible projects, looking for partners who might want to get the Trump name on their hotel or buildings.
Within the Trump Organization, that was a very clearly distinct role—the deal-maker versus the lawyer role—and that was his primary role. So the reason I think he’s so significant is there’s this period of very rapid expansion into these overseas licensing deals. It’s sort of remarkable. Between 2006 and then really speeding up in 2010, ’11, ’12, into 2016, they’re just going all over the world. By “they,” I mean three people—Don Jr., Ivanka, and Michael Cohen—and they are signing deals with really famously corrupt people in famously corrupt parts of the world, doing virtually no due diligence that we can tell or that they can claim, and taking some enormous legal risks, all the while saying, “Well, we didn’t know they were bad. We didn’t know the details,” etc., etc... So he will have the email traffic that will tell us what, exactly, is happening. What, exactly, did they know about these partners? How aware were they of these partners’ illegality? Or how careful were they to not know? Because in an American law, being deliberately … it’s called willful blindness. So if I do business with you, and you constantly show up with all the telltale signs of a notorious criminal, and I never ask you, and I ask everyone not to tell me, that’s deliberate ignorance. That’s willful blindness and that’s, essentially, legally the same as actually knowing.
.. We know the role Michael Cohen played in trying to get a Trump Tower built in Moscow several years ago. You’ve been looking at the Russia story and at the Trump business story, and earlier you referred to journalists who are on the beat of the Trump business story. To what degree do you think that these are going to eventually meld and become the same story?
.. I think the bigger story is the Trump business story, and the Russia stuff is a subset of that. Look, Donald Trump is somebody who’s been trying to score big through business since the 1970s or 1960s. He’s a guy who’s been trying to make it politically for a couple years. So I’m pretty sympathetic to the argument that this really was not a presidential run. This was an effort to burnish his brand, to sell more properties around the world, and specifically to get a Trump Tower Moscow. I think that was a major, major goal for Donald Trump for reasons that still don’t quite make a lot of sense.
.. When the Paul Manafort charges broke and it became clear how much illegal activity he was engaged in, separately from his work on the Trump campaign, it was pretty striking that a guy like this could go around, and commit this many financial crimes overseas, and still be a lobbyist and work in Washington. Have you been shocked at how much white-collar crime seems to go unprosecuted or investigated until it is closely examined?
Yeah. It’s been really upsetting. I think one of the key lessons of all of this is just how little we prosecute white-collar crime in general, and particularly international white-collar crime
.. I will say, even in that Trump is an outlier, that the Trump Organization took risks, did work with partners that very few Americans would ever consider working with. So I don’t want to give the impression that he’s just run-of-the-mill, he’s just like everybody else, because that’s something I hear a lot, and that always drives me crazy. He’s not.
.. That’s not because, necessarily, all business people are moral. It’s because business people are supposed to be good at balancing risk and return. Take the Mammadovs that he did this deal in Azerbaijan with. As far as we can tell, Trump made $5 million or so from that deal. If he had done his due diligence and if he had learned, as he would have, that they were likely to be money laundering partners of Iran’s Revolutionary Guard, he faced a life-changing amount of fines and potential criminal liability. If you’re a billionaire, as he claims, then you shouldn’t do that for $5 million. It’s an absurd risk to take. It makes no sense at all, and we see him taking such risks again and again and again. So he really is an outlier. He’s not like everybody.
His 17 months in office have in fact been an exercise in futility for the art-of-the-deal president.
- No deal on immigration.
- No deal on health care.
- No deal on gun control.
- No deal on spending cuts.
- No deal on Nafta.
- No deal on China trade.
- No deal on steel and aluminum imports.
- No deal on Middle East peace.
- No deal on the Qatar blockade.
- No deal on Syria.
- No deal on Russia.
- No deal on Iran.
- No deal on climate change.
- No deal on Pacific trade.
.. Even routine deals sometimes elude Mr. Trump, or he chooses to blow them up.
.. “Trump is an anarchist,” said Jack O’Donnell, a former president of the Trump Plaza Hotel and Casino, who became a sharp critic. “It was his approach in business, it is his approach as president. It does not take good negotiating skills to cause chaos. Will this ever lead to concessions? Maybe, but concessions to what? Not anything that resembles a deal. I just do not see him getting much done.”
.. I don’t think it’s that counterintuitive to say that playing hardball will lead to better trade deals eventually,” said Andy Surabian, a Republican strategist and former aide to Mr. Trump.
.. We’ll see what the final outcome is, but it’s already a success just to get them to the table.”
.. the major tax-cutting package that passed late last year. But even that was negotiated mainly by Republican lawmakers, who said Mr. Trump did not seem engaged in the details.
.. And as legislative challenges go, handing out tax cuts without paying for them is not exactly the hardest thing that politicians do.
.. In effect, the agreement with Mr. Kim is like a deal to sell parts of Trump Tower without settling on a price, date, inspection or financing. It is not nearly as advanced as agreements that President Bill Clinton and Mr. Bush made with North Korea, both of which ultimately collapsed.
.. But no modern president has sold himself on the promise of negotiating skills more than Mr. Trump has. He regularly boasts that deals will be “easy” and “quick” and the best ever.
.. He has pulled out of Mr. Obama’s Iran nuclear deal, Paris climate accord and Trans-Pacific Partnership, but promises to negotiate better versions of those deal have gone nowhere.
.. Mr. Trump set his sights on what he called “the ultimate deal,” meaning peace between the Israelis and Palestinians. He said it was “frankly maybe not as difficult as people have thought.” A year later, his team is only now preparing to release a plan.
.. “What the president seemingly fails to understand is that in foreign policy and in trade policy — unlike in real estate transactions — the parties are all repeat players,”
.. “The country you insult or seek undue advantage over today you will have to work with again tomorrow.”
.. Mr. Trump’s approach so far has been to make expansive demands and apply as much pressure as he can. He argues that crushing sanctions he imposed on North Korea forced Mr. Kim to meet. He now hopes to extract concessions from China, Canada and Europe after slapping punishing tariffs on them.
.. “Trump is a bilateral player, in part because that’s what he is used to from his building days, but also because he keeps himself the king, the decider, the strongman,” said Wendy Sherman, who was Mr. Obama’s lead negotiator on the Iran nuclear deal. “In the case of North Korea, however, he wouldn’t have gotten this far — which isn’t all that far — without the South Koreans or the Chinese.”
.. When he gave up on immigration on Friday, he blamed it on Senate Democrats, even though the immediate impasse was among House Republicans who do not need the other party to pass a bill.
.. “Republicans should stop wasting their time on Immigration until after we elect more Senators and Congressmen/women in November,”
.. It was in effect an acknowledgment by Mr. Trump that he cannot reach across the aisle and can only govern with Republicans.
.. the challenge on immigration is that the president has to grapple not just with Democrats but also with Republicans who do not share his philosophy on the issue.
.. Mr. O’Donnell, the former casino president, said Mr. Trump has always oversold his deal-making skills. The casino he managed, Mr. O’Donnell noted, brought in $100 million a year yet still went bankrupt.
.. “The fact is, Trump casinos should have been one of the greatest success stories in the history of casino gambling, but bad deal making caused him to lose all three properties,” he said.
If Donald Trump were the deal making, industrial-policy president that he once promised to be, he would be on the phone with Jeff Bezos right now, making a case along these very lines — while hinting, broadly and of course nonthreateningly (har, har), at the political benefits of opening Amazon St. Louis or Amazon Detroit, of being seen as a company that renews cities and doesn’t just put brick and mortar out of business.
.. But when you enjoy a monopoly’s powers, one way to avoid being regulated like one is to act with a kind pre-emptive patriotism, and behave as though what’s good for America is good for Amazon as well.