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Trump’s Negotiating Tricks Are Limited

January 20th, 2019 by dk

Donald Trump may or may not have unique negotiating skills. He has sold himself as a consummate deal maker since his first best-selling book, “The Art of the Deal.” The past month has shown that his experience isn’t serving him well in Washington, DC.

Trump’s negotiating strategies shined where he had something unique that somebody else wanted. It might be a condo with a view of the ocean, a hotel room with top-end room service, a worldwide brand name, or an apprentice position that included some television fame.

In every case, Trump held not only the high cards, he also owned the table below the cards and the lighting above them. If the cards themselves didn’t guarantee success, he could always dim the lights or pound the table.

Trump learned early in his career that information is power. He could dim the lights with unverifiable claims, asserting that he recently sold a similar unit for a lot more money.

Or he could shift attention from the cards to the table: “Don’t you wish you had a table like this one? Wouldn’t it be nice if you were as rich and powerful and famous as me?” Once he received the slightest nod, he’d shift into a whisper tone, confiding that this little purchase will be a great first step toward that imagined success.

Potential buyers would perceive “special access” as value-added, sweetening the pot — even though it was based on unfounded assertions (from Trump) and unarticulated emotions (from the buyer.) Trump allowed vanity to silently support his logic.

That logic always led to the same spot and the same line: “Take it or leave it.” The ultimatum increases the asymmetrical burden. If the deal collapsed, Trump walked away, having lost only the time and attention he invested. He would blithely move on to the next big deal awaiting his artful touch.

Trump’s shutdown and its related antics are his attempt to create a “take it or leave it” asymmetry. It’s failing.

The strategy won’t work with members of Congress, diplomats, and other proxy agents. They have secure jobs with reliable incomes. Whether the deal succeeds or fails will have no measurable effect on them. Compliance is not their only option.

No member of Congress worries about shouldering more than 1/535th of the blame for any political outcome. There’s almost no room in Washington for the zero-sum logic that animates Trump and his worldview. In Washington, there aren’t many corners to be painted into.

His own cabinet members and special advisors may owe him fealty in ways that mirror “The Apprentice,” but he’s never before had the burden of replacing those he has fired, much less requiring the approval of the Senate.

So he’s picking on the most vulnerable people he can control — his own federal employees. Civil service has traditionally offered some of the most well-protected jobs in the nation, but President Trump is using their misfortune to motivate others to give him the deal he desires.

Will it work? Probably not, but it’s the only trick Trump knows.


Don Kahle ( writes a column each Friday for The Register-Guard and blogs at

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