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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).

  • 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.

Go deeper

China builds its own movie empire

Expand chart
Data: Gower Street citing Comscore; Chart: Kavya Beheraj/Axios

China blocked all four of Disney's Marvel movies from being released in its theaters last year, a grim sign for U.S. film giants being squeezed out of the world's fastest-growing box office.

Why it matters: The Chinese Communist Party is using domestic films as a key conduit for mass messaging aimed at achieving political goals, leaving little room for foreign views.

Why 401(k) rollovers are so annoying

Illustration: Aïda Amer/Axios

If you happened to change jobs recently, you may have tried to transfer your retirement account from your former employer into an Individual Retirement Account or your new employer's 401(k) plan. If so, you probably encountered a bureaucratic gantlet — and you're not alone.

Why it matters: Kludgey processes around retirement account transfers result in people losing track of their funds, giving up important tax advantages, or otherwise disadvantaging themselves and being less prepared for retirement.

The hard math behind America's labor shortage

Data: Bureau of Labor Statistics, Congressional Budget Office; Chart: Axios Visuals

Yes, the pandemic has created unusual temporary labor market dynamics. But in the bigger picture, the 2010s were a golden age for companies seeking cheap labor. The 2020s are not.

The big picture: In the 2010s, the massive millennial generation was entering the workforce, the massive baby bo0m generation was still hard at work, and there was a multi-year hangover from the deep recession caused by the global financial crisis.