As a candidate, Donald Trump sold himself as a deal maker. As president, he’s governing more as a hostage taker.
Across an array of domestic and foreign challenges, Trump’s go-to move has become to create what amounts to a political hostage situation. He’s either terminating, or threatening to terminate, a series of domestic and international policies adopted by earlier administrations – and insisting that others grant him concessions to change his mind.
Over just the past week, Trump has executed this maneuver three separate times. Last Wednesday, with Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau sitting beside him, Trump reaffirmed his willingness to walk away from the North American Free Trade Agreement that has linked the US, Mexico and Canada since 1994.
Then on Friday came a double-header. In a belligerent speech, Trump declared that without significant changes he would abandon the international nuclear deal with Iran. On the same day, Trump officially ended the “cost-sharing reduction” payments that help limit health costs for low-income consumers under the Affordable Care Act and then tweeted: “Dems should call me to fix!”
This followed Trump’s earlier announcement that he will end by early next year former President Barack Obama’s “deferred action” program that protects from deportation young undocumented immigrants brought to the country illegally by their parents.
Internationally, Trump has tried the same move by threatening to spike the US free trade agreement with South Korea unless it accepts major revisions. He’s also ended American participation in the Trans-Pacific Partnership, a pan-Asian free trade deal Obama negotiated, and the global Paris climate accord. In each instance, he’s suggested he’s open to devising alternatives (sometimes more half-heartedly than in the others.)
“You’re terminated,” is quickly becoming the presidential equivalent of his reality show catchphrase: “You’re fired.”
Trump’s expectation is that his threats will strengthen his leverage over whoever he’s negotiating against – whether Democrats in Congress, foreign governments, or both. But the early experience suggests that Trump’s actions more often may have the opposite effects: to isolate him, divide his allies, and harden opposition to his proposals.
Trump’s threats to undo major agreements have unquestionably heightened anxiety and created disruption for those he’s trying to pressure.
Just the possibility that Trump would end the cost-sharing payments, which reimburse insurance companies for limiting out-of-pocket health care costs for low income consumers, already forced insurers to preemptively raise premiums this year, adding more pressure on Obamacare markets. His move to actually stop the payments could make coverage unaffordable for many more of the uninsured and/or prompt insurance companies to flee more states under the ACA.
Trump’s threat to end Obama’s protections for the roughly 800,000 young people in the “deferred action” program has left them uncertain how long their legal protection will continue – making it far more difficult for them, or others who work with them like universities, to plan for the future.
Merely the threat that the US will abandon the Iran agreement and restore sanctions casts a shadow over that nation’s efforts to revive foreign investment, one of the deal’s principal selling points there. And Trump’s NAFTA warnings have hurt the Mexican stock market and raised similar uncertainties for companies contemplating investments in Canada or Mexico.
Never take a hostage you can’t harm
None of this is good news for those who support any of these existing arrangements. All of them want to end that uncertainty – which in theory strengthens Trump’s hand in negotiations. The problem is his threats have simultaneously triggered several other dynamics that make it more difficult for him to achieve his goals.
The most important obstacle for Trump’s strategy is that it violates what many experts describe as the first rule of negotiation: never to take a hostage that you can’t harm. Put another way that means negotiators should never to make a threat that they can’t fulfill. Yet Trump’s threats, if fulfilled, would cause at least as much pain for his allies as his adversaries.
In a recent Quinnipiac University national survey, nearly 90% of Americans said the young people brought to the country illegally by their parents should be allowed to stay; even four-fifths of Republicans agreed. By contrast, 60% of Americans opposed Trump’s border wall, which he has insisted Democrats accept as the price for maintaining the deferred action protections.
On health care, a recent survey by the non-partisan Kaiser Family Foundation found that 60% of Americans say they will hold Republicans accountable for the ACA’s future performance.
More pressure on Trump’s allies
For these reasons, Democrats believe Trump’s actions have, in fact, imposed less pressure on them than on Congressional Republicans, most of whom don’t want to contest next year’s election explaining why health premiums are soaring or thousands of undocumented young people have been deported. “He is taking hostages you can’t shoot,” says one senior Congressional Democratic aide. “Add his personal unpopularity and I promise you no Democrat is feeling the heat on either of those two issues to cave to what the president wants because he is asking for unpopular things and threatening things are popular.”
Likewise, ending NAFTA would unquestionably deal a huge blow to the Canadian and Mexican economies. But it would also prove massively disruptive for American manufacturers that have integrated each nation into complex global supply chains, and for agricultural interests that rely on exports to both markets. Those are each cornerstone constituencies for Trump and Congressional Republicans – and they are raising increasing alarms about the possibility he will abandon the agreement.
The Iran deal doesn’t have nearly as strong a domestic constituency as the other programs Trump has threatened. But even there significant elements of the GOP foreign policy leadership fear that abandoning the deal could further destabilize the region and, in the worse case scenario, light the fuse for another military showdown even as the US is confronting North Korea.
How to negotiate with a hostage taker
The second big problem in Trump’s strategy is that such open threats may leave his negotiating partners with less, not more, flexibility to make concessions. At home or internationally, no one wants to be seen as publicly backing down to an ultimatum or cowering before a bully.
Groups representing the so-called “Dreamers” for instance have publicly called on Democrats not to accept Trump’s security proposals to safeguard their status. In Iran, experts say, Trump’s threat to abandon the nuclear deal strengthens the hard liners who have argued that President Hassan Rouhani was misguided to ever negotiate with the US. And in Mexico, pressure on the government to resist excessive concessions has increased in parallel with Trump’s rhetoric.
“What [Trump] fails to understand is that his attempts at stiffing his two North American neighbors severely constrain the maneuverability of the Mexican government, particularly in the run-up to a presidential election next year,” Arturo Sarukhan, the former Mexican ambassador to the US told me. “Now government and [the] private sector have underscored that a bad deal is worse than no deal.”
Isolating the US from deals
Trump’s threats are weakening his hand in a third manner: they are systematically isolating him from traditional allies. At home that’s evident in the widespread business alarm over his moves on NAFTA and the deferred action program. Abroad that’s clear in the firm insistence by the six other parties to the Iran agreement (including a rare joint statement last week from the leaders of France, Germany and Great Britain) that they will not reopen the deal. Similarly, rather than pursue Trump’s suggestion of bilateral agreements with the US, the other 11 nations that negotiated the pan-Asian free trade deal are looking to conclude it by November – without US participation.
“Trump’s walking away from major agreements is isolating the United States as never before,” says Ivo Daalder, president of the Chicago Council on Global Affairs and former US ambassador to NATO under Obama. “These are the clearest case where American First is really America Alone.”
Facing such international isolation, Trump probably doesn’t have the leverage to achieve major changes in the global agreements he’s criticized. That will eventually leave him with the choice of “a significant climb-down” in the terms he’ll accept, or walking away from the agreements, notes Richard Fontaine, president of the centrist Center for a New American Security and the former top foreign policy adviser to Sen. John McCain. “The implications of withdrawing from all of the [agreements he’s criticized] just don’t seem to strike the President as all that consequential,” Fontaine notes. “So I think they are serious about pulling out.”
But such wrenching actions might only deepen Trump’s international isolation and further encourage other leading nations to pursue agreements without US involvement. “There are huge consequences from America’s growing isolation, which is that others, notably China, are filling the void,” says Daalder.
With all of these moves to terminate, or threaten, programs that others at home and around the world have grown to depend upon, Trump has shown himself uniquely capable of shattering structures and seeding uncertainty. What he hasn’t shown is that he can replace the foundations he’s razing with anything better, or even, in most instances, anything at all.