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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

Bipartisan group of senators unveil $908 billion COVID stimulus proposal

Sens. Joe Manchin (D-W.Va.) and Susan Collins (R-Maine) in the Capitol in 2018. Photo: Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call

A bipartisan group of senators on Tuesday proposed a $908 billion coronavirus stimulus package, in one of the few concrete steps toward COVID relief made by Congress in several months.

Why it matters: Recent data shows that the economic recovery is floundering as coronavirus cases surge and hospitals threaten to be overwhelmed heading into what is likely to be a grim winter.

Inside Patch's new local newsletter platform

Illustration: Annelise Capossela/Axios

Patch, the hyperlocal (and profitable) local digital news company, has built a new software platform called "Patch Labs" that lets local news reporters publish their own newsletters and websites, sources tell Axios.

Why it matters: It follows a growing trend of journalists going solo via newsletters at the national level.

Scoop: Politico stars plot new Playbook

Anna Palmer and Jake Sherman. Photo: Alex Wong/Getty Images

Three of Politico’s biggest reporting stars plan to launch a competitor to the company’s Politico Playbook franchise, sources tell me. 

Why it matters:  Jake Sherman, Anna Palmer and John Bresnahan will launch a daily newsletter in 2021 as a stand-alone company, the sources say. In effect, they will be competing against the Playbook franchise they helped create and grow.