Donald Trump Is a Terrible Negotiator
Donald Trump campaigned as a dealmaker. The entire premise of his candidacy was that he’d glower across a conference room table and, using his business guy skillz, defeat the enemies of American greatness to win the sweet end of the lollipop for his voters. He seemed to define good governance as little more than shrewd haggling. If Ronald Reagan was the Great Communicator, Trump would be the Great Negotiator.
So what kind of negotiator has he been since taking office? Is Trump, as he himself would put it, making good deals, or is he, as they say in modern business vernacular, getting his face ripped off?
It’s unfair to grade Trump solely on results at this point, as it’s early and many outcomes remain in doubt. But we can examine Trump’s negotiation ploys—the tactics he wields and the manner in which he wields them—to assess how likely they are to succeed over the course of his administration. Again and again with regard to looming negotiations that could define his presidency, Trump has gotten off on the exact wrong foot:
He’s sent confusing signals. He said he’d be OK with a one-state solution in Israel, before his U.N. ambassador clarified that only a two-state solution would do.
He’s made bold opening moves but then quickly backed down while receiving no concessions in return. He cozied up to Taiwan in an unprecedented manner, then acknowledged “One China” policy the instant China insisted on it.
He’s made false accusations that poison relationships. European countries do not in fact owe money to NATO.
He’s been ignorant, boorish, and short-fused. Upon hearing, apparently for the first time, about a refugee deal the U.S. cut with Australia, Trump became furious and hung up on the Australian prime minister.
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But our richest case study so far is Trump’s push to pass the initial version of the American Health Care Act. We know Trump was “100 percent behind” the AHCA, that he “left everything on the field,” and that he was “the closer,” attempting to herd various parties into agreement. We also know that he failed—to the tremendous embarrassment of both the White House and the GOP. What can we learn about Trump’s negotiation style from the bill’s spectacular fizzle?
The first step in a winning negotiation, as any MBA course will teach you, is to understand the playing field. You need to burrow into the weeds on picayune issues so you know where opportunities for compromise lie. You need to zoom out and see the larger picture so you can suggest clever trade-offs. You must deeply grok the interests of all the players, and the stakeholders they answer to, so you can predict where they’ll bend and where they’ll stiffen.
As best we can tell from outside the process, Trump made zero effort to learn anything at all. He never studied the wonky details of the bill, according to reports. He was clueless about the broader history of the debate (“Nobody knew health care could be so complicated,” he marveled at one point). He never bothered to comprehend other interests—the ideological objections of the hard-line Freedom Caucus, the practical concerns of the moderate Tuesday Group, the alarm of an American public that gave the bill a 17 percent approval rating—so he could empathize and try to assuage them.
Having been too lazy, or too lacking in attention span, to do basic prep work, Trump then seemed to grow bored of the negotiation itself. Effective dealmakers are known for their patience and stamina, which lets them endure the emotional ups and downs of the process, ignore outbursts, and settle in for the long slog of achieving a lasting accord. Trump, however, grew restless within days after wading into the fray, issued an ultimatum, and imposed a tight deadline with no clear rationale. (Consider that negotiations over Obamacare dragged on for more than a year, while the AHCA give-and-take lasted 17 days.) The vote Trump tried to force never happened, and instead he simply scuttled the process before it had begun.
It’s true that a ticking clock can sometimes be a powerful negotiation tool. A person who needs a deal done by midnight is likely to offer deep concessions at 11:58 p.m. In an episode we did about time pressure in Slate’s Negotiation Academy podcast series, my co-host spoke to diplomat Richard Haass about the tactic.* Haass agreed that being up against a clock can “force compromise” and “focus the mind.” But artificial deadlines, like Trump’s, can backfire. Haass recalled Northern Ireland talks in which he set a firm date with the intent to “jam” the parties into an agreement, only to find this impeded a deal. “In order to make the compromises we wanted,” Haass noted, “they had to bring along their own internal politics. And they simply needed more time. We tried to move things faster than the domestic politics of one of the parties would allow us.” Which is precisely the problem Trump ran up against with Paul Ryan, who needed far more time to achieve compromise between his warring congressional factions.
Trump has suggested this was all mere prelude and that a new health care bill is still in the offing—maybe even in the next few days. But he made every effort to throw a wrench into potential future negotiations, too. In the wake of his defeat he blithely insulted groups he might need to work with next time by tweeting, for instance, that the Freedom Caucus is not “on the team” and that “We must fight them, & Dems, in 2018!” He then suggested he might unilaterally end government payments that subsidize low-income people’s health insurance unless Democrats “start calling me and negotiating”—an empty attempt at extortion that soon withered, demonstrating poor understanding of both negotiation and of the political landscape. More recently, he set another arbitrary deadline, asking all parties to scurry around in hopes of getting something done to improve the cosmetics of the administration’s 100-day record. If a health care bill does happen, it will happen in spite of Trump, not because of him.
Given all this behavior, how seriously will anyone take Trump’s threats and deadlines next time? Why would you believe that Trump will earnestly consider your interests? Why would you accede to Trump’s demands when it’s clear you can wait him out and bait him into acting rashly? Instead of coolly staring down his foes across the conference table, Trump flipped the conference table onto his own foot, knocked a scalding-hot coffee carafe into his lap, and pelted himself in the face with a wide variety of danish.
People who practice negotiation at the highest levels treat it as a cooperative art. They don’t even refer to people across the table as “opponents”; they call them “negotiation partners” or, at worst, “counterparties.” Good dealmakers favor an extended, friendly schmoozing period before making declarations or getting down to brass tacks. They feel out the unstated interests that underlie the stated positions. They don’t treat deals as win-lose, “distributive” battles that divvy up value; they treat them as win-win, “integrative” collaborations that create more value for everyone. They agree on objective measures so both sides can assess the effects of a deal. They give careful thought to the implementation that will follow a negotiation, because a party that feels bullied or lied to is unlikely to respect the bargain that is struck.
Trump seems completely unaware of the best practices in the field he claims as his forte. When he talks about trade deals, he talks about “beating” other countries, not working together so both sides profit. He often declares his positions (“Mexico is going to pay for the wall”) early on, very publicly, before talks have begun—which both inflames the situation and leaves him no room to make concessions without losing face. He casts doubt on official statistics, which turns negotiation into a hopeless contest of dueling realities. He disparages people and countries he’ll surely need to work with down the line.
Instead of doing the hard work of real negotiation, Trump is obsessed with shallow persuasion tactics. He often employs a facile technique known as “social proof,” which boils down to insisting that everyone else is doing it so you should, too. (“Many people are saying …” is his favorite verbal construction.) He tries to skate by on charm instead of logic. (GOP reps said that in his calls to them during the AHCA fight, he didn’t bother to talk policy at all—he just shot the breeze.) He squints, acts tough, talks loud, and insists that people “come to me” instead of meeting them on metaphoric neutral ground. (By contrast, in our Negotiation Academy interview with super-negotiator H. Rodgin Cohen, he said being gentle and softspoken was an advantage because “very few people will give into a bully” and, what’s more, on the rare occasions you do need to yell, it’s “not lost in a cacophony of noise.”) It’s like everything Trump thinks about negotiation came from watching bad Hollywood movies.
Trump’s defenders argue that he cleverly stakes out extreme positions because they’re only a “first offer.” Making an outlandish opening bid—such as “Mexico is going to pay for the wall”—is known as “anchoring” in negotiation-speak. It’s a powerful tactic when your counterparty isn’t clear on the value of the thing you’re bargaining over, so you can psychologically sway them into accepting the way you’ve framed things. But it’s more consistent with a hardball, win-lose, used-car–salesman approach than with the sophisticated dealmaking required to pull off a complex, international agreement involving hot-button issues like border security and immigration. Anchoring is also counterproductive when you back down from your own opening bid while getting nothing in return. See, for instance, Trump’s demand to get border wall funding in return for averting a government shutdown. He quickly retracted it while recieving no concessions from the other side. That’s known as negotiating against yourself.
Trump’s simplistic ideas about how negotiation works are best exemplified by his impetuous withdrawal from the Trans-Pacific Partnership. This was a complex trade agreement toiled on for eight years by skilled trade negotiators from 12 nations. Trump unilaterally pulled out of TPP while receiving no concessions (from, say, China, which benefits tremendously from our withdrawal) in return. Why did he abandon the agreement? He claimed it was because he favors bilateral instead of multilateral negotiation. I presume this is because dealing with only one counterparty at a time is easier for him to wrap his head around. But multilateral negotiations create space for more nuanced trade-offs, allowing everyone to get what they want. (Think about multiteam sports trades where three teams can solve their problems at once.) With TPP, for example, developing countries in Asia gave us concessions on labor and the environment in return for our opening of Japan’s market to them. “It’s easier and more effective to negotiate with big groups,” says Caroline Freund, a trade expert at the Peterson Institute for International Economics. “With TPP, we were getting a huge chunk of the world to agree to U.S. trade rules. Doing things bilaterally is much less efficient. You need to spend time negotiating each one, taking each one through Congress. It’s more difficult, time-consuming, and costly.”
All these missteps can be traced back to Trump’s fatal flaw as a negotiator: his narcissism. “Negotiators get themselves in trouble when they’re blind to the perspective of other parties,” says Don Moore, a professor of management at the Haas School of Business at the University of California, Berkeley, who has been writing about Trump’s negotiation style since the start of his campaign. “I see the Trump administration making huge errors in their engagement with our partners because they have no appreciation of the other side’s interests. They speak in ways that imply great ignorance about our partners on the global stage, and they’re deeply arrogant about the rectitude of their own positions. That alienates partners.”
There have been some isolated bright spots in Trump’s presidential negotiation approach. He seems to have in mind some kind of deal with China that would involve both trade issues and North Korea policy, which suggests a willingness to look for creative swaps. But perhaps the only element we could call an asset to Trump’s negotiation style, in terms of achieving deals, is his complete lack of core principles. It allows him to stay open to any agreement that will let him sign papers, take credit, and hold a photo op. “When you don’t know where you’re headed,” notes Moore, “any road will take you there.” I’m still wary about where that approach takes the rest of us.
*Correction, April 26, 2017: This piece originally misspelled Richard Haass’ last name. (Return.)