Trump’s a terrible deal-maker — just look at the past 100 days


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

Rand Paul
Paul with other conservative congressional critics of the
House GOP plan.


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
. 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
”—an empty attempt at extortion that soon
withered, demonstrating poor
understanding of both negotiation and of the political
. 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.

trump merkel
Chancellor Angela Merkel and U.S. President Donald Trump
hold a joint news conference in the East Room of the
White House in Washington, U.S., March 17,


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 border
presidential candidate Donald Trump attends a news
conference near the U.S.-Mexico border (background),
outside Laredo, Texas.

Reuters/Rick Wilking

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

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

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.

shinzo abe trump
Donald Trump welcomes Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo
Abe outside the West Wing of the White House in
Washington, Friday, Feb. 10, 2017.

Photo/Andrew Harnik

“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

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.

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