I’m starting to wonder if Donald Trump, bestselling author of “The Art of the Deal,” just isn’t very good at making deals. His presidency has been a ceaseless torrent of promises about what he’ll achieve from negotiations with foreign leaders. But time and again, he ends up high and dry.
Right now, the administration is waiting to find out what the North Korean regime meant when it made the ominous vow to give the United States a “Christmas gift” if talks didn’t produce an agreement on nuclear weapons and economic sanctions by year’s end. No such accord has been reached, which confirms the bankruptcy of Trump’s strategy.
He started out in 2017 by threatening Kim Jong Un with “fire and fury” if he made threats. But then the two agreed to a 2018 meeting in Singapore — a made-for-TV spectacle that produced an agreement short on meaningful specifics. About all Trump got in return for giving Kim the propaganda opportunity was a halt in missile tests and the purported demolition of a test site.
At a second meeting in Vietnam in February, Trump walked out after failing to get what he wanted. That ploy didn’t work either. Since then, Kim has carried out several short-range rocket and missile tests. Trump’s response? “He likes testing missiles,” the president said last summer with peculiar nonchalance.
All indications are that he’s been duped by a wily opponent who is playing for time. Trump’s former national security adviser John Bolton recently told NPR the North Koreans will never surrender their nuclear weapons.
“They’re happy to sell that same bridge over and over again, but there’s no serious chance they will ever voluntarily give it up,” he said. “The more time they have, the more they can overcome all the technological and scientific difficulties to perfecting a deliverable nuclear weapons capability.”
The China trade deal that Trump celebrated is underwhelming, leaving most of the important issues unresolved. Representative Robert Lighthizer admitted it was just “a first step” — a far cry from the “epic” agreement Trump said was almost complete back in April.
Despite hitting China with an array of tariffs that hurt American consumers and companies, Trump has yet to get anything worth the cost he’s inflicted on the U.S. economy.
As for the view from Beijing, The New York Times reported Dec. 14, “People close to China’s economic policymaking process say that as the trade talks progressed this past week, the mood among Chinese officials gradually shifted from deeply worried to cautious and finally, by late in the week, jubilant and even incredulous that the hard-liners’ goals had been achieved.”
When the Chinese refused to sign a deal unless the U.S. agreed to roll back tariffs, the administration said no — only to cave in the end. Lighthizer says Beijing agreed to buy at least $40 billion in American farm products each year, but the Chinese themselves have made no such commitment publicly.
It just may be the administration is greatly exaggerating what it got. That’s what it did with the United States-Mexico-Canada Agreement, a modest update of NAFTA that Trump pretended was a radical overhaul.
His negotiating wizardry has also fizzled against Iran. He abandoned the agreement the Obama administration reached to block Tehran’s path to the bomb, calling it “a horrible, one-sided deal.” But Trump’s attempt to use economic strangulation to force the other side to submit has failed.
In response, Iran has taken steps that are forbidden by the agreement. So thanks to Trump, the Iranians are closer today to getting a nuclear weapon than they would be had he stayed in the deal.
Meanwhile, attacks carried out by Tehran in response to U.S. pressure have forced the administration to contemplate sending 14,000 troops to the region. Instead of making the Iranians more compliant, he has made them more aggressive.
Let’s not forget the most conspicuous negotiating flop of all. Trump vowed over and over that we would build a wall on the southwest border and Mexico would pay for it. But Mexico has not paid anything and obviously never will.
Trump brings to mind Samuel Johnson’s comment: “Men who cannot deceive others are often very successful at deceiving themselves.” Maybe he blustered his way into a few good deals during his time in private business. But when it comes to high-stakes negotiations with foreign adversaries, he’s a lamb among wolves.