• Daniel Ethan Finneran

A Negotiator Or A Novice?

January 2018


If I were to be tasked with describing President Trump’s negotiation style in but two words, I’d pause for a moment, my thoughts deep in recollection of the sage wisdom I’d accrued from having read The Art of the Deal (yes, I did).


In that happy moment of my memory, I’d think back to those hundreds of pages filled margin to margin with unsurpassed acumen and cut-throat advice. Then, just as his words of wisdom were fluttering back into mind, I’d forget everything I’d learned. That’s right—I’d toss it all aside. Like litter at the curbside or plastic out to sea. For it appears his book was rather insincere, or perhaps, merely the profile of another man. Either way, none of what I learned from that best-selling chef-d’oeuvre, that prophetic businessman’s bible, rings true today. If it did, my choice words to describe the president’s negotiation style might be shrewd and relentless, or sagacious and deft. Instead, I settle on these two terms, a marriage of uninspiring adjectives: eager and ingenuous.


For all his talk of being the ne plus ultra of negotiators, the wheeler and dealer in a league all his own, Trump really is quite bad at doing what he says he does best. He’s proven this more times than just once.


I first took note of this incongruity—between his vaunted business-sage persona and his actual self—a little over four months ago. It was then that, for the first time, he met with the Senate and House majority leaders, Mitch McConnell and Paul Ryan (who were accompanied by Secretary of the Treasury Steve Mnuchin and Senator Kevin McCarthy) and the Democratic duo who would come to be known forevermore as “Chuck and Nancy”. It was the first such meeting during which both parties convened with the intention of really working something out. On the table was the debt ceiling, which the Republicans wanted raised over the course of a year, and which the Democrats wanted raised and then re-negotiated after a fleeting three months.


In almost an instant, before the blink of an eye or the clearing of a throat, Trump agreed to the Democrats’ first and only offer set forth. Steven Mnuchin, eager to interject on the president’s behalf, was made to bite his tongue. He wanted to make the conservative’s case, that an extended debt-ceiling timeframe would be fiscally and politically advantageous, but he wasn’t even given the chance. Trump yielded to “Chuck and Nancy” almost immediately, defecting to the Democrats and leaving his gaggle of gobsmacked Republicans behind. The Republicans, for their part, had all the power and the leverage they could want—an Executive and Legislative Branch at their back, with solid majorities in both houses of Congress, no less—but even so, they left the meeting defeated, empty-handed, and unexpectedly scratching their heads.


And the head-scratching hasn’t stopped since. Recently, the White House held an unrelated bi-partisan meeting on immigration reform. It’s become a beast of an issue as of late. It’s one that’s as laborious and wonkish as it is politically dangerous. When (and if) the negotiations eventually come to their close, it’s inevitable that neither side will be fully pleased. The Democrats have made their position clear: they want, above all, to pass a “clean” DACA bill, or, one that enshrines the Obama-era measure into law—Constitutionally and unambiguously. Heretofore, it’s been sustained by what’s known as “prosecutorial discretion”, a sort of turning of the federal government’s all-seeing blind eye. In this way, although they weren’t Constitutionally protected, the “Dreamers” (or, those beneficiaries of the DACA program) had no cause to concern themselves with fears of being deported, or of not eventually attaining citizenship via a government-endorsed pathway. This is what’s being presented as a “clean” bill—nothing more and nothing less.


But that’s not to say that any addition to it is dirty. The DACA enshrinement is essential and—except for a few hardline immigration hawks on the Right—most lawmakers recognize this and agree. But, immigration reform as a whole needn’t stop there. “Dreamers” ought to rest comfortably in this country, which—in many cases—is the only one they’ve ever known—but this doesn’t relieve us of the responsibility and urgency to re-examine our immigration system in other ways. A beast, if indeed it is as I referred to it, must be tackled from more than one side.


In addition to, or, as the thinking goes on the Right, in return for DACA’s enshrinement, President Trump and the Republicans have listed a few demands. Among them are an end to chain migration, an increase in border security funding, and a swift cessation of the diversity visa lottery system. Taken collectively, these three measures would constitute a substantial step forward toward what’s been dubbed “comprehensive immigration reform”, the catch-all phrase for those measures Republicans want etched into law. And of course, included in this proposal would be the vaunted border wall, that beautiful, rally-crying barricade that stirred thousands to the voting booths, but has since dried up like an arid promise. We can now expect, if anything at all, some kind of Tex-Mex hodgepodge of fencing, hillocks, and rivulets.


You can see where both parties stand. Democrats want nothing but DACA; Republicans, everything except it. Hence, a second bipartisan meeting, much like the first one attended by “Chuck and Nancy”, was convened. Not one to learn from a mistake, President Trump again nearly repeated his flub a second time. Dianne Feinstein, the Democratic Senator from the state of California, put to him a proposal that he should’ve reflexively batted aside. She asked of him his thoughts regarding a “clean DACA bill with a commitment that we do comprehensive immigration reform later”. This is a bit misleading, and frankly, quite cunning on her part, for if her proposal were to pass—that is, a clean DACA bill with no strings attached—the likelihood of her returning to the table for future negotiations would be nil. There simply would be no need. Having achieved her goal, she and the Democrats could then bask in having passed DACA, without having to lift a finger for anything “comprehensive” thereafter.


You’d expect President Trump, the sagacious sage of the deal that he is, to pick up on Feinstein’s chicanery right away. Not only didn’t he, but he nearly agreed to everything she said. It took Republican Senator Kevin McCarthy’s intervention (succeeding where Mnuchin had failed) to reel the president back from the edge and save him from falling into the same trap twice. Had McCarthy kept his peace and allowed Trump to drift away naively to the Left, we’d probably be looking at DACA on the books, a border wall forever relegated to a lifeless blueprint, and an anemic immigration system in need of repair.


If I’m a Republican, the president’s negotiation “style” is a disquieting trend. For all his self-acclaimed negotiating prowess, he’s far too easily tempted by the aromas of the left. Democrats are playing him as if intoxicants. He’s too eager to jump in and bathe in their words, to swim there and leave his sobriety behind. That’s the danger of being at once a poor negotiator, ill-informed, and desperate to imbibe. Hopefully, there’s always a life-vest and a sharper mind to save him, because he obviously is incapable of making these deals alone.

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