At the end of Friday's White House press briefing, a reporter asked Sarah Huckabee Sanders what "specific steps" Donald Trump is taking to prepare for a summer with North Korean leader Kim Jong-un. The president's press secretary suggested there's nothing to worry about:
"[T]he president is, I think, the ultimate negotiator and dealmaker when it comes to any type of conversation.... And we feel very confident in where we are."
Around the same time, Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.) said the other day that Trump is "one of the best negotiators." Soon after, in a separate interview, asked why the American leader agreed to the meeting, a senior administration official added that the president "has made his reputation on making deals."
Perhaps, but has Trump earned that reputation, or is it a sales pitch based on meaningless hype with no grounding in reality?
To be sure, this president wants to be perceived as a world-class negotiator. Not long before launching his presidential campaign, Trump identified what he saw as his greatest strength. “Deals are my art form,” the Republican boasted. “Other people paint beautifully or write poetry. I like making deals, preferably big deals. That’s how I get my kicks.” It's partly why he paid a ghost-writer to help write a book called, "The Art of the Deal."
But in practice, this is proving to be one of Trump's biggest weaknesses.
Indeed, as president, the grand total of major deals -- foreign or domestic -- negotiated by Trump still stands at roughly zero. He tried and failed to negotiate a health care deal. He tried and failed to negotiate an immigration deal. His party approved massive tax breaks for the wealthy, but the president's role in persuading Republicans to do what they wanted to do anyway was, at best, incidental.
Trump has negotiated no new trade agreements. He's negotiated no new security agreements. He's made more than a few unilateral executive-branch actions, but that's largely because the White House's efforts at deal-making haven't amounted to anything.
Those feeling charitable might point to a U.S.-negotiated cease fire in Syria, but even in this case, the administration basically just handed over more power and authority to Trump's allies in Russia.
Others might argue that Trump hasn't demonstrated any deal-making abilities as president, but we should instead look to the skills he demonstrated in the private sector. But even here, his record isn't what it appears to be. I'm reminded of something Vox's Ezra Klein wrote last year:
The answer can be found in Trump Steaks. And Trump University. And Trump Vodka. And Trump Suits. And Trump’s fragrance line, his board game, his ghostwritten books, his energy drink, his eyeglasses, and his chocolate bars.Yes, these are all real Trump products. And they expose the reality of Trump’s dealmaking. Trump is not a guy who makes particularly good deals so much as a guy who makes a lot of deals -- many of which lash his name and reputation to garbage products.Trump, a lifelong teetotaler, didn’t scour the globe to find the very best vodka. No — someone offered him an opportunity to make a quick buck by putting his name on a product he wouldn’t ever touch and he took it. Trump University was a far darker scam. Trump Steaks were, and are, a joke.This is Trump’s pattern: He licenses his brand and lets others worry about the details of the products. Trump’s partners often end up going out of business and his customers often end up disappointed, but Trump makes some money, and he gets his name out there, and it’s all good.
As we discussed at the time, this model has made Trump very wealthy, but it has nothing to do with being a successful president who knows how to strike meaningful deals.
What's more, none of this is the result of misfortune or near-miss opportunities. Trump has struggled at deal-making because he doesn't care to do the work necessary to reach agreements. To strike big deals, negotiators need to do their homework. They need to be able to listen to competing arguments. They need to be creative. They need to be consistent and show follow-through. They need patience and an appreciation for nuance.
Whatever strengths Donald J. Trump may bring to the table, he has none of these qualities. It's precisely why there's reason for skepticism about our amateur president leading diplomatic talks with a nuclear-armed rogue dictator, and why it's hard to take seriously the idea that the American president is "the ultimate negotiator and dealmaker when it comes to any type of conversation."