Trump and the art of no deal
Imagine that the Yankees, this December, gather the sports media hordes to announce the signing of star outfielder Bryce Harper. Reporters are already puzzled, because the press release didn't contain any details about the number of years that Harper will be playing in New York, or how high the stacks of cash will be in return for his services. When pressed, neither Harper nor Yankees General Manager Brian Cashman can produce these contractual details.
"We have a deal," Cashman says to incredulous reporters. He then unveils a single piece of paper on which Harper and the Yankees express their commitment to signing a contract together, their mutual admiration for one another, and their determination to win a World Series.
The next day, Harper meets with the Cardinals, Phillies, Dodgers, and Angels and tells reporters he's still considering all options.
If this scenario strikes you as absurd, it absolutely should. No baseball GM would claim to have signed a player who has merely indicated his interest in agreeing to a contract. Yet this is exactly how President Trump appears to be conducting international diplomacy.
The latest installment of this farce transpired when European Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker and Trump met and released a statement promising to "work together toward zero tariffs, zero non-tariff barriers, and zero subsidies on non-auto industrial goods." Juncker tweeted: "I came for a deal, we made a deal."
Yet neither Juncker nor the Trump administration managed to release the details of this agreement, how it will work legally, or whether there is a timeline for bringing it to fruition. And that's because the "deal" doesn't yet exist at all. As the president said, "We're starting the negotiations now, but we know very much where it's going." The joint statement was full of this kind of hedging. The EU "wants to import more liquefied natural gas (LNG)." The two parties agreed to "launch a dialogue." Increased soybean exports to the EU were reportedly on the table as a concession, as the president's tariffs on China threaten important swing state districts at play in the 2018 midterm elections.
The president then went to Iowa and, in a lie-littered improv routine, claimed that "we just opened up Europe for you farmers." (The U.S. exported $11.5 billion worth of agricultural goods to the EU in 2016.) Yet officials from both sides more or less blew up this so-called "deal" later on the same day. During a Senate hearing, Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross and Trade Representative Robert Lighthizer demanded more far-reaching concessions from the EU. And an EU official stated bluntly that "agriculture is not part of the scope of the talks."
This apparent but unverified breakthrough is another in a string of unsettling and strange behaviors emanating from the United States, whose president meets with foreign leaders, claims to have come to agreement on key issues yet can produce no evidence that either party has committed to a set of obligations, let alone jumped over the legal and political hurdles to make those ideas a reality.
This dynamic was at work during Trump's ballyhooed summit with North Korean leader Kim Jong Un earlier this summer. After a brief meeting with Kim in Singapore, the pair released a vague statement that North Korea had committed "to work toward complete denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula" and also work toward lasting peace on the Korean Peninsula. The document contained no specific parameters, no benchmarks for the achievement of these goals, and no elaboration of the mutual obligations each party agreed to abide by. It doesn't even define the terms it employs.
Yet the president returned to the United States and claimed, triumphantly and absurdly, to have fixed the whole problem. "There is no longer a Nuclear Threat from North Korea," he tweeted blithely. Subsequent revelations alleged that North Korea is continuing to produce nuclear fuel at heretofore unknown nuclear sites as part of a comprehensive project to deceive the United States. Neither side has taken any demonstrable steps to pursue a real agreement in the seven weeks since the summit. It's the same sleight of hand Trump used earlier this month to claim that he had agreed to a series of "deals" with Russian President Vladimir Putin on, among other things, resolving the Syria crisis.
The basic problem is that the president is profoundly, almost impossibly, lazy. For him, easy things ("DO NOT CONGRATULATE") are strenuous, while he seems to believe that complex, intricate matters of global importance can be resolved with an awkward handshake and an aimless confab. His non-existent work ethic is almost unmatched in world diplomatic history outside the realm of inbred princes and accidental kings. He is content to chat amiably with his counterparts, agree to a vague framework bereft of any substance, and then call it a "win." He loves the pageantry of big announcements but is incapable of putting in the elbow grease to invest them with legitimacy or legal force.
Global leaders know perfectly well that the impressionable Trump, a serial liar and exaggerator with no better than a child's grasp on economic and security policy, has no idea what he's talking about and will say whatever he wants after the meeting is over anyway. That not only leaves the difficult task of hammering out the details to others, but allows allies and adversaries to reverse themselves almost immediately, to contest the Trump administration's narrative and to gallop off in the opposite policy direction. It also permits Trump himself to change his mind without consequence, or to be talked out of what he just agreed to by other advisers. That's the sort of impetuousness and impatience that led the president to storm out of the G7 meeting without signing the statement his team had just painstakingly helped craft.
The result of all of this unpredictable and inscrutable noise is profound policy drift. President Trump has walked away from both the Paris climate accord and the Iran nuclear deal without even a halfhearted attempt to put something else in place. He threatens to pull out of the World Trade Organization but can't be bothered to enlist congressional allies in the legislative project that would be required to do so. He threatens multiple countries with a global trade war, but lacks the courage to pay its inevitable political price, which is how we arrived at the president's announcement of a plan to bail out farmers hurt by the administration's cavalier and arbitrary tariffs.
He rails against NAFTA but in the absence of discernible progress on adjustments to the agreement's framework, refuses to actually pull out of it. You can tell that the NAFTA project is going poorly because Lighthizer was out there making fanciful claims about how an agreement will soon be reached. It seems more likely that Trump will make a theatrical, election-eve announcement about a NAFTA "deal," which he will either torpedo himself shortly thereafter, or which will be so vague as to accommodate any interpretation.
The president has always been open about this approach, and even outlined it in The Art of the Deal more than three decades ago. "I never get too attached to one deal or one approach," the president's ghostwriter Tony Schwartz opined. "For starters, I keep a lot of balls in the air, because most deals fall out, no matter how promising they seem at first."
You have to hand it to the president: He does indeed have many, many balls in the air. The trouble is they all seem to keep slipping through his grasp, landing on the ground with a dramatic thud.