On the campaign trail, Donald Trump marketed himself as an expert negotiator who would draw on his years of cutting deals in the boardroom to deliver the best terms for the American public.
“My Style of deal-making is quite simple and straightforward,” Trump said in his 1987 (ghostwritten) bestseller “The Art of the Deal.” “I aim very high, and then I just keep pushing and pushing and pushing to get what I’m after.”
Almost 100 days into his Oval Office tenure, this high-stakes, take-no-prisoners style has proven to be more of a hindrance than a help for the President—and failed to secure a single legislative victory.
“The Trump folks don’t seem to play well in the sandbox,” Stan Collender, a former top staffer on both the Senate and House Budget Committees, told TPM in a recent interview.
Without “general, generic trust” between the White House and GOP-led Congress, he continued, “you get a situation where Republican lawmakers tend to go off on their own without the administration,” he said. “And this is a White House that doesn’t take kindly to being dissed.”
On critical issues from Obamacare repeal to NAFTA renegotiation, an identifiable pattern has emerged. Trump makes an outlandish ask late in the negotiating process; White House advisers and lawmakers struggling to adjust to this new reality release a wave of contradictory statements on where the administration stands; and, ultimately, the President backs down, issuing a vague promise to circle back to the issue or claiming he never intended to do what he initially said he wanted to do, anyway.
As he openly admits, Trump is still learning how the U.S. government operates, expressing dismay that a “so-called” judge can block the president’s executive orders, and that the executive branch doesn’t set the legislative agenda or calendar. With defeats piling up, Trump is slowly coming to the realization that he can’t just walk away from negotiations when the health care of millions of Americans or funding of the federal government are on the line.
These last-minute caves are undermining not only his own dealmaker reputation as a dealmaker, but the limited political capital a president has to sway resistant lawmakers or rally the American public behind a piece of legislation. Trump’s all-bark, no-bite presidency is weakening the office itself.
Trump Vows ‘Tremendous Support’ For Obamacare Repeal Vote, Gets Little
Trump ignored widespread criticism of the health care bill put forth by House Speaker Paul Ryan (R-WI) on March 7, urging Congress to move “quickly” on it.
Two weeks later, with the GOP no closer to working through deep-seated divisions on the bill’s provisions, Trump tried to muscle through a vote. In Capitol Hill meetings and early-morning tweets, the President called out Republican holdouts by name and warned those who didn’t vote for the bill that they would be “ripe for a primary” in 2018. This bluster failed to sway hardline lawmakers from safely Republican districts, who openly accused Trump of backing down on a core campaign vow.
The night before the vote was scheduled, Trump and White House cheif strategist Steve Bannon upped the ante, reportedly telling the hard-right Freedom Caucus that they had no choice but to vote for the bill. This bluster continued into the next day, with Mick Mulvaney, head of the Office of Management and Budget, reportedly responding to Ryan’s acknowledgment that he didn’t have the votes for repeal by claiming: “The president doesn’t care. The president wants a vote.” Trump, Spicer said, had “left everything on the field.”
Then, all of a sudden, the bill was dead. Minutes before voting was supposed to begin, Trump called the Washington Post and announced that in anticipation of defeat, “we just pulled it.” He tried to soften this acute embarrassment for the GOP by blaming Democrats and announcing a sudden shift to tax reform, but that pivot never materialized.
Trump To Dems: I’ll Shut Down My Own Govt Over Obamacare Payments!
In mid-April, Trump proposed an audacious strategy to force Democrats to the bargaining table on health care: threatening to shut down the government on his own watch. With the deadline to fund the federal government drawing close, Trump suggested he would stop Obamacare subsidy payments to insurers that provide critical support to the individual market.
“What I think should happen—and will happen—is the Democrats will start calling me and negotiating,” Trump told the Wall Street Journal.
Democrats responded by telling the president to bring it on, calling Trump’s proposal a “cynical strategy” that would threaten the health care of millions of voters. Republicans, wary of constituent backlash, also displayed little appetite for tying Obamacare’s cost sharing reduction payments to the budget deal and risking a shutdown.
In private, they signaled CSR payments wouldn’t factor into the agreement, and by Wednesday Ryan announced flatly, “CSRs, we’re not doing that.”
The White House ultimately accepted defeat, with Trump aides acknowledging that they would continue to pay the cost-sharing subsidies, at least for now.
‘Big Beautiful Wall’ Is Coming…One Day
The White House initially took a similarly hard line on funding Trump’s signature border wall, warning that he wouldn’t sign a spending bill that didn’t include it.
“We have our list of priorities,” Mulvaney said at an event hosted by the Institute of International Finance. “We want more money for defense. We want to build a border wall.”
Democrats told the press that the White House was mucking up smooth negotiations with Republicans by introducing this “non-starter.”
As Congress returned from recess this week, the administration started to soften. Chief of Staff Reince Priebus told NBC they might wait until September to secure wall funding, and Trump said the same in a private meeting with conservative publications. Republican senators like Lindsey Graham (R-SC) and Thom Tillis (R-NC) lowered expectations further, cautioning that a physical wall might not ever materialize.
On Tuesday, Mulvaney reluctantly acknowledged that the wall wouldn’t be funded in the temporary spending bill.
“We just thought that it would be a good first step to get these things that everybody agrees on and take that idea of a government shutdown off the table,” he told CNN, insisting that Trump is “not backing down” from its promise to build the wall.
Trump Decides ‘Worst Trade Deal’ Actually Okay For Now
Withdrawing from the North American Free Trade Agreement was a core tenet of Trump’s nationalist vision for rebuilding the U.S. economy.
“NAFTA’s been very, very bad for our country,” he repeated last week at a speech in Wisconsin. “It’s been very, very bad for our companies and for our workers, and we’re going to make some very big changes or we are going to get rid of NAFTA once and for all.”
Rushing to score victories ahead of the 100-day deadline, Bannon and White House adviser Peter Navarro on Wednesday released a draft executive order to withdraw from the 1994 trade deal, alarming congressional Republicans.
“I think we’d better be careful about unintended consequences,” said Senate Majority Whip John Cornyn told Politico.
Then Trump received a call from Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau and Mexican Prime Minister Enrique Peña Nieto asking him to reconsider. Late Wednesday, the White House released a statement saying “President Trump agreed not to terminate NAFTA at this time.” He would work with the world leaders to renegotiate the deal to their mutual benefit, the statement said.
A quick U.S. withdrawal “would be a pretty big shock to the system,” Trump informed reporters on Thursday, though he cautioned he may still do so if negotiations don’t go his way.