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The one-trick pony: Inside Trump's negotiating style

Trump
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).

  • Sources who've been in the room with Trump for negotiations over NATO and various trade deals tell me they've at times felt "awkward" watching Trump go in hard against foreign leaders.
  • They say Trump seems immune to awkwardness — but then rarely follows through on his most extreme rhetoric.

The next few weeks promise three more Trump tricks:

  1. After sending financial markets into a mass freakout over a trade war with China — which culminated in Trump's threatening China with $100 billion in tariffs — some senior officials, including Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin, are cautiously optimistic they'll find a compromise with Beijing. On Tuesday night, Mnuchin leads a delegation to China to try to negotiate a way out of the trade war.
  2. Senior White House officials tell me a NAFTA deal could be "imminent" — meaning, an announcement could come in the next few days. Trump's team is still negotiating and views Canada as a major problem, but we're a far cry from a year ago when Trump's aides were telling us he was hellbent on terminating NAFTA.
  3. Last August, the world braced for nuclear apocalypse as Trump threatened "fire and fury" against North Korea. And less than four months ago, Trump tweeted that his nuclear button is "much bigger & more powerful" than Kim Jong-un's. Now, we're anticipating peace talks on the Korean Peninsula.

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.

Go deeper: This week will pose a big test of Trump's negotiating predictability.

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