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Illustration: Lazaro Gamio/Axios
President Trump tells people he keeps the world guessing with his wild unpredictability. But those who work most closely with him say he's a one-trick pony in negotiations.
The trick: Threaten the outrageous, ratchet up the tension, amplify it with tweets and taunts, and then compromise on fairly conventional middle ground.
“His ultimate gamble is: 'You don’t have as big of stones as I do,'" a source close to Trump told me. "'You’re going to feel too uncomfortable where I go. The stakes are too high. This is too far outside your comfort zone.'"
Consider these threats: To withdraw from Syria (he reengaged with missile strikes), withdraw from Afghanistan (he settled on the more-of-the-same strategy recommended by his generals), withdraw from the U.S.-Korean trade deal (Trump's team negotiated with the Koreans and announced modest changes to the deal), veto the government spending bill (he signed it), and impose severe worldwide tariffs on steel and aluminum (he offered a bunch of exemptions).
The next few weeks promise three more Trump tricks:
Why it can still work: Trump has followed through on just enough of his threats to keep a tincture of doubt in people's minds. He withdrew from the Paris climate accord, for example, and tried to end DACA (though the courts have temporarily shielded the program). And the internal White House consensus is that he'll blow up the Iran nuclear deal. But as a general rule, Trump’s rhetoric is usually just posturing.
Be smart: This week will pose a big test of Trump's negotiating predictability. More on that in item 2.
Less than 48 hours before a major tariffs deadline that could roil global markets, senior Trump administration officials are still internally divided over what to do. At 12:01 a.m. Tuesday, Trump is supposed to impose a 25% tariff on steel and a 10% tariff on aluminum on all the countries that got temporary exemptions in March. Those countries include some of America’s closest allies.
Why this matters: The temporary exemptions — the European Union, Canada, Mexico, Australia, Brazil and Argentina — account for almost half of steel imports to the U.S. If Trump slaps tariffs on all of them on Tuesday morning, it would disrupt global markets and throw international supply chains into uncertainty.
Behind the scenes: It's unclear what the administration will do. The free-trader officials — Mnuchin and Larry Kudlow — want to extend the deadline to give more time for negotiations and prevent a freakout in the markets and among allies.
A source who has consulted with several countries trying to get exemptions tells me there’s widespread confusion, and the Trump administration has given no clear guidance for how they could get exemptions.
Bottom line: Tuesday's deadline will test the theory we outlined in item 1. If Trump extends the temporary exemptions, he'll be fitting a predictable pattern: threaten an extreme action, then take a moderate middle course. If he doesn't — and slaps down sanctions on the entire European Union — he'll show why foreign countries still fear his "unpredictability."
When he needs to send a message to his foes, Mitch McConnell is the master of subtlety.
At the Republican Study Committee meeting this past week, RSC Chairman Mark Walker told members the following story, according to a source in the room and another source briefed on the conversation:
A Chao spokeswoman said: "We have nothing to add."
My colleague Barak Ravid broke a remarkable story this afternoon: At a closed-door meeting with heads of Jewish organizations in New York on March 27, Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed Bin Salman (MBS) had harsh criticism for Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas (Abu Mazen), according to an Israeli foreign ministry cable sent by a diplomat from the Israeli consulate in New York, as well three sources — Israeli and American — who were briefed about the meeting.
The bottom line of the Crown Prince's criticism: Palestinian leadership needs to finally take the proposals it gets from the U.S. or stop complaining. It's a stunning message from an Arab leader.
According to Ravid's sources, the Saudi Crown Prince told the Jewish leaders:
Why this matters: Despite some in the administration believing the Israeli-Palestinian peace deal is dead on arrival, Trump's Middle East negotiating team still plans to release its proposal.
Behind the scenes: The U.S. negotiating team — which includes Jared Kushner, Jason Greenblatt and David Friedman, among others — hopes that even countries that are sympathetic to the Palestinians view the U.S. plan as reasonable and after its release will pressure the Palestinians to the negotiating table. To that end, MBS' comments are helpful.
Senior White House officials are expressing confidence, both privately and publicly, that Trump will meet with Kim Jong-un.
Why this matters: Trump surprised his staff and the South Koreans in early March by agreeing on the spot to a meeting with Kim Jong-un. Shortly after that meeting, a senior official told us there was a "50-50" likelihood, at best, that the talks ended up happening. Now, the staff seems certain it's going ahead. Trump simply wants it to happen.
Reasons for skepticism: Wallace asked Bolton if Trump would insist that Kim "give up, ship out, all of his nuclear weapons, all of his nuclear fuel, all
of his ballistic missiles" before the U.S. makes any concessions.
Congress is on break until the week of May 7.
President Trump's schedule, per a White House official:
"The current era of 'fake news' may soon seem quaint. Video manipulation is eroding society's ability to agree on what's true — or what's even real," The Atlantic's Franklin Foer reports.
But now: Fabricated videos, which are becoming ever more sophisticated, "will create new and understandable suspicions about everything we watch. Politicians and publicists will exploit those doubts. When captured in a moment of wrongdoing, a culprit will simply declare the visual evidence a malicious concoction."