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President Trump boards Air Force One on a windy day at Andrews Air Force Base yesterday. (Nicholas Kamm / AFP / Getty Images)

With his announcement yesterday that he's considering $100 billion more tariffs on Chinese goods, President Trump created confusion within his administration and abroad because of a negotiating style you could call "governing by bluffing."

This is how he has lived his whole life: promising big things, and creating on-the-edge, "Apprentice"-style drama — then changing his mind.

  • He threatened to veto a spending bill that conservatives hate, then signed it.
  • He announced stiff tariffs on imports of steel and aluminum, then the administration started negotiating tons of carve-outs.
  • He talks of war with North Korea, then agrees to meet with Kim Jong-un.
  • He muses openly of replacing top aides, including White House Chief of Staff John Kelly, then lets them stay.

How Trump views negotiating, based on conversations by Jonathan Swan and me:

  • Unlike most politicians, he sees the “announcement” not as the rollout of a policy, but as the starting point for negotiations.
  • The word Trump uses all the time privately, and sometimes publicly, is “flexible.” Everything is up for negotiation. Everything is zero sum.
  • And he always needs a scorecard, to know minute-by-minute who is “winning.” With foreign countries like China, his scorecard is the trade deficit. 

So the bluff is really just his extreme, gambler’s negotiating style: Make a maximalist ask, frame the debate around that, and go from there, improvising all the way.

  • It worked sometimes in his business career but it also failed a bunch, most spectacularly in Atlantic City when his casinos went bust and he temporarily gave his life over to his creditors.
  • It’s too early in his presidency to tell definitively whether his negotiating tactics will work in international relations.
  • As Eurasia Group's Ian Bremmer points out, Trump has already gotten some concessions out of the Chinese and South Koreans, so the approach hasn't been a total failure.

A source close to Trump tells us: "Being a 'bluffer' only works when you have a history of actually following through. Trump has followed through on his threats enough that it's impossible to determine what he's really thinking."

Be smart: Trump is right that his wild unpredictability gives him leverage and keeps people guessing. But his style stirs wild uncertainty and market volatility daily.

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Go deeper

45 million Americans under winter storm watches near New England

Computer model projection showing the winds moving around the powerful East Coast storm on Saturday Jan. 29, 2022. Image: https://earth.nullschool.net

Nearly 45 million Americans are under winter weather alerts and warnings from North Carolina to northeastern Maine Thursday night, as a major winter storm threatens the region.

Why it matters: It is predicted to be the biggest blizzard since 2018 to strike the Northeast with more than 2 feet of snow possible in parts of eastern Massachusetts, according to the National Weather Service.

Judge nixes Gulf of Mexico oil leases in climate-focused ruling

Tug boats prepare to tow the semi-submersible drilling platform Noble Danny Adkins through the Port Aransas Channel into the Gulf of Mexico on December 12, 2020 in Port Aransas, Texas. Photo: Tom Pennington/Getty Images

A federal judge on Thursday canceled the Biden administration's late 2021 sale of new oil-and-gas drilling leases in the Gulf of Mexico.

Why it matters: The ruling that the greenhouse gas emissions analysis by the Interior's Bureau of Ocean Energy Management (BOEM) was insufficient is a win for green groups that challenged the decision, as they seek to curb fossil fuel production.

5 hours ago - World

Zelensky questions U.S. warnings of "imminent" invasion in Biden call

Biden and Zelensky at the White House last October. Photo: Brendan Smialowski/AFP via Getty

President Biden and Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky had a back-and-forth in their call this evening about just how "imminent" the threat of a Russian invasion might be, according to three sources briefed on the call.

Why it matters: Biden has said previously that he believes Russian President Vladimir Putin will probably "move in" to Ukraine, and White House press secretary Jen Psaki said Thursday afternoon that "an invasion could come at any time."

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