Donald Trump can’t negotiate

Photo by Andrew Neel on Unsplash

There is a story about one of Donald Trump’s multiple bankruptcies. Allegedly, he was locked out of the room at one point while his creditors negotiated how they were going to handle his case. After considering various options, they decided that there was some value in having his name attached to the casinos, and so they exited the room and gave him a take-it-or-leave-it offer: go on a personal budget, give up operational control of his businesses, and sell, among other things, the Trump Shuttle airline, his yacht and his stake in New York City’s Plaza Hotel. In return, the creditors would defer some payments, but would not reduce the total debt owed.

Trump jumped at the deal. So much for the great negotiator.

Trump has styled himself as a master negotiator. He called his ghostwritten book The Art of the Deal, and claimed on the campaign trail that “I’m a negotiator. I’ve done very well over the years through negotiation.” We can argue that he is, in fact, a historically bad negotiator, and that his alleged success in business is actually nothing more than a facade, but his handling of the recent wall debacle is a case study in what not to do as a negotiator.

The Harvard Business Review published an article proposing four rules for negotiation. I would argue that Trump has violated every one of them in his recent dealings with the Democrats.

  1. Do your background homework: From day 1, Trump painted himself into a corner. First, he agreed to a deal — passed unanimously by the Senate — that would have kept the government open without the wall. After the Senate passed the legislation and the House appeared poised to, Trump reversed his position, throwing the government into its current crisis, and offering nothing to the Democrats to entice them to agree to his new demands. Since then, he has turned down other offers to give the Democrats something in order to reopen the government, and he has refused a proposal by Vice President Mike Pence to accept half of what he was originally demanding in funding to settle the dispute. To him, offering to build the wall in steel rather than in concrete is a compromise. But the Democrats don’t care what the wall is built with. They just oppose the wall. The point is that Trump went into this shutdown as a result of pressure from commentators on the right such as Ann Coulter and others showing the Democrats just how weak a negotiating position he was in. He also was completely unaware of the fact that the Democrats have no reason to agree to his demands given the fact that polling favors their position. Finally, he has no fall-back position he can agree to in order to get a deal done. As a result, the Democrats know they can just wait until Republican Senators start to fold, as appears to be happening.
  2. During the process: Don’t negotiate against yourself. Trump violated this rule by first saying he would approve a continuing resolution (CR) keeping the government open without a requirement for the wall, then claiming that he wanted a concrete wall, then claiming he would accept a steel wall. Through all of this, the Democrats have not changed their position. This just signals to them that they can wait until Trump comes up with another negotiating position.
  3. The stalemate: This is certainly where the parties find themselves now. Various commentators have pointed out that in such a situation, you must let go of ego and posturing. Unfortunately, as demonstrated by Trump’s “temper tantrum” when the Democrats at the beginning of a meeting stated that they would not accept a wall, Trump has lost all control of his emotions in this process. His emotions have made it impossible to find any common ground that might help resolve the situation, and his weak and deteriorating position give no incentive to the Democrats to help him out of it.
  4. To close or not to close: A negotiator needs to be able to walk away. But Trump can’t do that. He is stuck in a situation in which he will need to deal with the Democrats for at least the next two years. The Democrats know this and are playing the long game. They know that eventually, he will have to give in since the government cannot stay shut forever. Thus, despite his storming out of a meeting, he really has nowhere to go, and the Democrats know this, further weakening his position.

There are two more thoughts to consider regarding Trump’s ineffective negotiating with the Democrats over this shutdown. First, in their 1981 classic Getting to Yes, Roger Fisher and William L. Ury suggested that negotiations should be aimed at determining the interests of the parties rather than simply considering the positions. What do the parties really want? One might argue that Trump really wants border security, and if so, the two parties could negotiate over a border security solution both sides favor, thus turning a stalemate into a win-win situation. Unfortunately, Trump has turned away from negotiating interests and toward negotiating positions. Either he gets his wall or he loses. There is no win-win scenario to his approach.

Second, as John Steinbeck once said, “if you find yourself in a fair fight, your tactics suck.” Trump not only finds himself in a fair fight, he finds himself at a disadvantage. Nancy Pelosi is more experienced at this than he is, she has the votes, and the public supports her position over his. Rather than trying to fight from an advantaged position, Trump has actually entered a fight when the other side has all the cards. He tactics really do suck.

Trump is panicking, as well he should be. He has painted himself into a corner, and this debacle is going to turn into an embarrassing defeat, one which, to use the words of Ann Coulter, will show his administration to be a “joke.” At this point, even I have no ideas on how to get Trump out of this mess, but one must wonder, is this mess better than the alternative, which is to talk about the on-going Mueller investigation, the Democrats starting their own investigations, and the faltering economy? At least on this issue, Trump can talk about something that makes his base happy. But it points to the fact that his obsession with keeping his base will not serve him or his party well in 2020.

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Mike is an Assistant Professor of Management for Legal and Ethical Studies at Oakland U. Mike combines his scholarship with practical experience in politics.

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