Donald Trump’s art of the deal persona sold books like wildfire, anchored a blockbuster TV reality show and proved a potent theme for a White House run.
But it’s beginning to look a house of cards on which to build a presidency.
It’s not just that Trump – fresh from a collapsed summit with North Korea’s Kim Jong Un, a loss to Democrats over his border wall and a set of underwhelming new trade deals – is not living up to his own billing.
The strategy of presenting Trump as a consummate dealmaker is becoming an albatross for the President, partly because he is operating in a domestic and international environment where there are few low-hanging deals on offer.
Democrats, with their new House majority, have little incentive to conclude joint projects that make the President look good as he seeks re-election.
And an increasingly unstable global geopolitical environment, characterized by power grabs by rising developing nations such as China and resurgent giants such as Russia, is challenging US leverage more than at any time since World War II.
Trump’s disappointments dim the mystique central to his political appeal as an instinctive deal maker who can get his way through bluffing, charm and lightning business reflexes. The narrative built on the President as the master artist of the deal also threatens to keep lining him up for failure at an already fraught political moment and is creating an opening for potential 2020 opponents.
“The President treats everything like a real estate deal,” former Vice President Joe Biden said in Nebraska on Thursday. ” ‘Just let me in the room. I can convince the other party to make a deal.’ Well, it requires hard, hard, hard and consistent diplomacy.”
In fact, Trump has shown more proficiency in breaking deals than making them after pulling the US out of the Iran nuclear deal and the Paris global climate pact and abandoning the Trans-Pacific Partnership, a massive multilateral trade deal.
A failure for ‘reality show’ diplomacy
North Korea’s refusal to make concessions at the summit was especially disappointing for Trump since he had done so much to build it up, and with deepening political and legal crises back home he badly needed a win.
In the days before he met Kim, Trump predicted that the talks would be “very productive” and said on Twitter that his tyrannical friend should take advantage of the “AWESOME” economic incentives for denuclearizing.
The White House had originally scheduled a signing ceremony for after the meeting at a Hanoi hotel, raising expectations that a deal was imminent after talk over the last week of some kind of peace pact.
Before he went to Hanoi, Trump defended his approach.
“So funny to watch people who have failed for years, they got NOTHING, telling me how to negotiate with North Korea. But thanks anyway,” Trump tweeted.
CNN’s Kevin Liptak reported that top aides had told Trump a deal was tough to reach in Hanoi, but the President had harbored hopes that he could turn the tables. He was dismayed to find that the North Korean leader was so inflexible.
Had Trump been more aware of the tortuous history of US-North Korea negotiations, he might have concluded that Kim was behaving exactly to type.
As with other high-stakes situations during his presidency, Trump has seemed to believe his own propaganda, entering the talks convinced of his capacity to forge a deal.
For all the chummy letters he and Kim exchanged, it was a lesson that when the vital national interests of two nations clash, good personal chemistry goes only so far.
Trump’s failure raises the question of whether an off-the-cuff approach, in which powerful figures huddle to thrash out a deal, is as effective in international diplomacy as it was in the Manhattan real estate game.
Trump-Kim Vietnam summit coverage:
Kim, according to the US side, was willing to take only limited steps to dispose of his nuclear arsenal in return for a full lifting of sanctions. The North Koreans maintained they would accept a partial easing of the trade embargo in return for dismantling a key nuclear facility.
Pyongyang’s tactics appeared to back up recent assessments by US intelligence agencies, which infuriated Trump, that the North would never renounce nuclear weapons completely because its leaders see them as a guarantee of regime survival.
Trump portrayed the impasse as part of a negotiating tactic, as if it were a hiccup in a real estate transaction.
“Sometimes, you have to walk,” Trump told reporters in Vietnam.
Many Republicans and North Korea analysts were actually relieved, having worried that Trump might make a huge concession in his zeal for a deal, and praised him for walking away.
Democrats pounced anyway, pointing out that Trump had now invested presidential prestige in two summits with Kim and achieved little.
“What we saw in Hanoi was amateur hour with nuclear weapons at stake and the limits of reality TV diplomacy,” said Democratic Sen. Robert Menendez of New Jersey on CNN’s “Newsroom.”
A thin resume on presidential deal making
Trump presented himself during his election campaign in 2016 as the man to fix Washington after a lifetime of pounding rivals in the boardroom.
“I have made billions of dollars in business making deals. Now I’m going to make our country rich again,” Trump said at the Republican National Convention.
Yet those mythical skills did not convince Mexico to pay for the border wall, as Trump promised at every rally. The President’s son-in-law, Jared Kushner, is meanwhile preparing to unveil what Trump has called “the deal of the century” to forge Middle East peace – though most analysts believe it is dead on arrival.
And the President was comprehensively out-negotiated by Democrats using their new House majority in a government shutdown over border wall funding.
That clash revealed a flaw in the use of the deal-maker profile as an organizing principle. It was not that Trump could not get a deal – but he found that accepting a give and take agreement with Democrats was politically untenable.
In 2018, Trump was considering a proposal that could have seen him get more than $20 billion in wall funding in return for a path to citizenship for “Dreamers” – undocumented migrants brought to the US illegally as kids.
But because he anchored his viability as President on a minority of Americans for whom a hardline immigration policy is an almost existential issue, he had no political room to make the deal.
Months later, after the damaging shutdown drama, Trump has had to resort to a controversial national emergency declaration to try to fund his wall.
He has done a little better on trade, after renegotiated deals involving the US, Canada and Mexico and South Korea.
But his claims of huge new breakthroughs have been difficult to square with the results of negotiations that have reshaped trade deals rather than revolutionized them.
Last year, Trump proclaimed a “very big day” for free and fair trade after stepping back from a tariff war with Europe.
But the “deal” in question was mostly an undertaking to talk about working toward zero tariffs, and no permanent agreement has yet been reached.
China pact could offer redemption for Trump the deal maker
Trump’s deal-making skills will next be tested in the endgame of long-running negotiations with China.
He and Chinese President Xi Jinping are under fierce domestic political pressure to drive a hard bargain. The President plans to host Xi at a summit at his Florida resort after he backed away from plans to impose tariffs this week on $200 billion in Chinese goods, citing “substantial progress.”
Washington is seeking far-reaching reforms of the Chinese economy – including to state industry subsidies – plus it wants to halt cyber-thefts of US secrets and hopes to get new protections for US intellectual property.
It would not be an exaggeration to say a deal along these lines would be one agreement that would match Trump’s hyperbolic claims of success.
Some Democrats and even some Republicans fear that Trump may be so desperate for a deal that he might be bought off with limited Chinese promises to tackle the trade deficit and to buy more US agricultural products from electorally key states that have been hit by the trade skirmishes.
It’s not clear how Trump’s unsuccessful opening to North Korea this week will play into the China deal. On the one hand, it could give Beijing’s negotiators extra leverage since the President could be even more keen to strike an agreement that will validate his deal making prowess.
But Trump’s willingness to walk away from the table with Kim could build his credibility if he threatens to take a similar approach with China.
CNN’s Arlette Saenz and Annie Grayer contributed to this report.