After expressing concern last week about the apparent joviality between President Donald Trump and two top Russian officials in an Oval Office meeting, I was berated by a reader who wrote that “you appear to have absolutely no idea of how high stakes negotiations are engaged in, and the misdirecting banter they so often start with.”
The reader was right.
I don’t know about high-stakes negotiations. I’ve never been involved in them — unless you count last weekend, when I started to leave a Manhattan parking garage and got the attendant to drop the extra $10 fee for a minivan.
For the most part, I don’t know what gets said by real master negotiators behind closed doors. I only know what I read, and I can judge only by results.
That’s why I’ve been asking myself: Where is Donald Trump?
He billed himself as the shrewd businessman. The prolific dealmaker. The unparalleled negotiator. Where did that guy go?
So far, Trump has been all threat and bluster. Those are his roots. That might get a loan payment deadline extended or a creditor to back off, but it’s not a playbook for anything in Washington but failure.
In business, when counterattacking didn’t work, Trump would call in the lawyers and settle, bind everyone to confidentiality agreements and move on. In Washington, you don’t get confidentiality agreements from your foes. So Trump has had to make public concessions, as when he followed his attacks on the judiciary by redrafting his grounded travel ban, only to have the new one grounded, which set off a new wave of counterattacks.
It looked like Trump might be starting down a new path a few days ago when, after firing FBI Director James Comey, he responded calmly to the naming of Robert Mueller as special counsel to head up the Russia probe. Trump welcomed the “thorough investigation” he said would exonerate him.
But by morning, he was back in business with a tweet blasting “the single greatest witch hunt of a politician in American history!”
The thing is, Trump understands what’s happening. He has said he realizes now that government is not like business. He just has to start acting like that.
The guy who assured us as a candidate that he is smart and flexible needs to be both, because what he’s doing isn’t working.
His mission-accomplished list includes signing a bunch of executive orders, playing a role in a despicable health care bill that betrays his own voters and won’t survive remotely intact in the Senate, and placing Neil Gorsuch on the Supreme Court — which wasn’t due to Trump as much as it was Senate Democrats’ willingness to force Majority Leader Mitch McConnell to blow up the 60-vote threshold.
Trump’s endless antagonism to the Russia probe — part of the Oval Office hilarity apparently was him telling the two Russians that Comey was a “nut job” — has ground everything else to a halt.
If Trump doesn’t change, efforts to resolve difficult issues requiring sharp negotiation skills — tax reform, a budget, infrastructure, health care — could be doomed.
Can he change? The better question might be: Does he want to?
Many supporters want him to stay the course. They fell in love with the fighter who was going to blow up Washington, and falling out of love is not easy. But politics is a long game. And when you want big changes, it’s even longer. And Trump can’t get there at this rate.
GOP strategist Ana Navarro, a noted Trump troll, is skeptical about a new Trump. She says you can’t change a man after he’s 15.
But Trump has morphed before, in business. He used to risk his own money, and often lost it. So he started selling — his name, his brand, an image. And people bought.
If he can’t switch gears again, he’ll drown in the swamp he promised to drain.
Michael Dobie is a member of Newsday’s editorial board.