“Sorry. It’s the way I negotiate,” President Donald Trump responded when asked about his conflicting tweets, inconsistent messages, and dizzying back-and-forth moves on the China trade war front 10 days ago. “It’s done very well for me over the years, and it’s doing even better for the country” he said.
As a negotiation expert who has taught for almost 25 years and has studied over 100 Trump business and presidential negotiations, the President is wrong in concluding his presidential negotiations have been effective.
We’ve now seen him negotiate for almost 3 years as president. But despite his co-authorship of the bestseller The Art of the Deal and his self-professed “great” negotiation skills, millions around the world still wonder: a) is he a negotiation genius playing a multi-dimensional game using proven strategies, and b) are his strategies working?
My answers are: a) he’s no negotiation genius, and b) his strategies have not worked well.
Here are three of his most common presidential negotiation moves, and his success rate in using them. These provide a roadmap to evaluate the effectiveness of his negotiations.
1. Trump’s Instinctive Tweet-Based Negotiation Moves
While Trump’s negotiations-by-tweet have been a relatively recent phenomenon, Trump has been winging it in negotiations since the 1980s.
While he did his homework and negotiated great deals on his first few big real estate developments (the Commodore Hotel/Grand Hyatt and Trump Tower), his celebrity status starting in the mid-1980s was accompanied by a belief that he could effectively negotiate anything without doing his homework or having a long-term strategy.
It didn’t work then, leading to multiple business bankruptcies and failed deals. And it’s not working now. Case in point: his recent flurry of negotiation moves in the China trade war.
A little over a week ago, China slapped reciprocal tariffs on $75 billion of U.S. goods, a response to Trump’s announcement earlier this month of new tariffs on $300 billion of Chinese goods. China’s retaliatory tariffs are a tried-and-true method of tit-for-tat in a negotiation.
Trump, however, publicly escalated the conflict within hours by tweeting that he would substantially increase the current and future tariffs on Chinese goods.
He then drastically escalated it by tweeting that all U.S. companies should leave China, claiming the power to force them if he wanted. A few days later, he switched course and told them to stay and thrive, as he said he would get a great deal. Then the new tariffs went into effect. And just this week we learned that new meetings are scheduled next month between our respective frontline negotiators.
Was the U.S. more likely to achieve its trade negotiation goals before or after the Trump tweets? Before. The danger in purely tit-for-tat negotiations is the possibility that it’s never ending and both parties will spiral downhill with mutually destructive moves.
Trump started a new round of tit-for-tat moves and substantially raised the stakes. He even personally escalated it by tweeting that China’s leader Xi was the “enemy.”
Then he basically took it all back, even calling Xi a “great leader” multiple times. Why? It’s unclear. But he’s sending inconsistent messages and losing credibility with each new statement. No one now knows which Trump statements to believe, including China.
That’s a major problem in any negotiation, and especially problematic in a presidential one with the world watching. Without credibility, little you say or do will be believed or relied upon by your counterparts.
Of course, Trump might argue that his moves created leverage by increasing the downside risk for China. But the existing tariffs were already significantly hurting China, which has gone from the U.S.’s largest trading partner last year to number three now.
Plus, if Trump believed this, why send the opposite message days later?
Bottom line: Negotiating complex game-changing trade and economic issues with off-the-cuff inconsistent tweets is highly counterproductive. This seems obvious. But Trump keeps doing it.
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2. Bullying, bluffing, threats and name-calling
Immigration and building a “beautiful” new wall on the U.S.-Mexico border represented perhaps Trump’s signature campaign promise. Everyone viewed the system as broken and getting progressively worse. A golden opportunity for a skilled negotiator.
How did President Trump negotiate with Mexico and later with Congress? By offending nearly everyone with bullying, bluffing, threats, and name-calling.
This should not have surprised anyone, as this was his negotiation modus operandi for 50 years. I found numerous examples in my research of him:
- bullying and stiffing subcontractors (reported in June 2016 by the Wall Street Journal, USA Today, FOX News, and NBC News);
- threatening his counterparts (he was in over 4,000 pieces of litigation in his career);
- bluffing on issues in almost every deal; and
- getting into public name-calling spats even with those he needed to get his deals done (he called then New York City Mayor Ed Koch a “disaster waiting to explode,” a “moron,” an “idiot,” the “pits,” and “incompetent.”)
This has continued in his tenure as president, especially on the immigration/wall issue.
He initially humiliated and embarrassed then Mexican President Enrique Peña Nieto by delivering a blistering anti-immigrant speech in Phoenix the same day he had earlier met him in Mexico City.
Later, just days before a January 2017 Trump-Nieto meeting to negotiate, Trump tweeted, “[i]f Mexico is unwilling to pay for the badly needed wall, then it would be better to cancel the upcoming meeting.” Nieto predictably canceled. You can’t effectively negotiate if you don’t even meet.
And who can forget the longest government shutdown in history this year over getting the U.S. to pay for the wall? Those negotiations were also characterized by Trump bluffs, threats and name-calling.
These strategies didn’t work. Instead they made it more difficult for Trump’s counterparts to concede. Predictably, they largely didn’t.
3. Working relationships with partners
Successful presidential negotiations require the ability to build coalitions around common interests and forge ongoing working relationships with allies and adversaries alike – foreign and domestic.
Trump has failed to do this in almost all circumstances but one: working with Senate Republicans to appoint federal court judges.
Pulitzer Prize-winning biographer Robert Caro, who spent decades studying and writing about one of the most effective presidential negotiators in U.S. history, Lyndon B. Johnson, has written extensively about how Johnson’s appreciation of the power of relationships enabled him to achieve his negotiation goals.
What about Trump? I suspect few of his negotiation counterparts – and it’s their opinions that matter – would characterize him as exhibiting a superior ability to find common interests and work with others to solve mutual problems.
One example best illustrates this. During the Senate’s effort to repeal-and-replace Obamacare, 20 Senate Republicans were meeting to strategize for the negotiations. White House Chief of Staff Reince Priebus showed up to participate on behalf of President Trump.
Incredibly, the Senate Republicans wouldn’t even allow him in the room. “We’re at our best when we’re amongst ourselves,” said Sen. John Kennedy (R., LA).
Interestingly, Trump doesn’t seem to care much about everyone’s reactions to his unpredictable and conflicting negotiation tweets and moves. He believes they are working.
The evidence suggests the opposite.
Here, we address how Trump bullied subcontractors and stiffed many of them despite contracts obligating him to pay.
“Wait,” you might say. “Why would he do this if his subcontractors could sue him for their unpaid bills? Don’t they have sufficient leverage to force him to pay?”
Actually, often they didn’t. And Trump knew it. Let me explain so we can all learn from it.
In this era where politics seems to break the mold and top political pundits are having trouble predicting outcomes, many are looking for books that provide greater insight into the mindset of our country’s leader.
Marty Latz is the author of The Real Trump Deal: An Eye-Opening Look at How He Really Negotiates and Gain the Edge! Negotiating To Get What You Want.
He is the founder of Latz Negotiation, a national negotiation training and consulting company that helps individuals and organizations achieve better results with best practices based on the experts’ research. He can be reached at 480.951.3222 or Marty@LatzNegotiation.com.