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Art of the deal: In politics, Trump finds negotiations a different ballgame

Why We Wrote This

A zero-sum negotiating posture – one side wins, the other loses – is counterproductive in Washington, where the two parties ultimately have to work with one another. Experts say probing underlying interests could reveal ways to satisfy both sides.

Kevin Lamarque/Reuters
President Trump speaks to Senate minority leader Chuck Schumer of New York during a meeting with the House and Senate Democratic leadership in the Oval Office on Dec. 11, 2018.

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In the business world, when one deal falls apart, there may be another opportunity elsewhere, with different people. In Washington, there’s one Congress and one president. Which means President Trump and the newly empowered Democrats have to find a way, sooner or later, to reopen the government – and they have to learn to deal with one another. If the current standoff represents a classic case of “positional bargaining” – one side wins, the other side loses – there’s an alternative approach, called interest-based negotiation. In this negotiation technique, the starting point is to look at the underlying interests, so that negotiators can craft an agreement that’s better for everybody. The problem is, as many observers have pointed out, Mr. Trump seems to be taking techniques he used in real estate and trying to apply them to a job that is far more complicated. “President Trump is accustomed to positional bargaining, and I’d imagine at points it probably has done him well in business,” says Daniel Shapiro, author of the book “Negotiating the Nonnegotiable.” “But in the Washington context, he estranges more and more people – and estranges those with whom he actually needs to work.”

To gain insight into President Trump – and the government shutdown – read Chapter 2 of “The Art of the Deal.”

Many of the steps businessman Trump and his coauthor lay out in their 1987 bestseller reflect the president’s aggressive approach to negotiation today: Think big. Use your leverage. Get the word out. Fight back.

“My style of deal-making is quite simple and straightforward,” the chapter begins. “I aim very high, and then I just keep pushing and pushing and pushing to get what I’m after.”

Over the weekend, Mr. Trump got a taste of just how difficult negotiating can be in Washington. As the partial government shutdown over border-wall funding entered its fifth week, Trump offered what he called a “common-sense compromise”: temporary protections for “dreamers” and certain other immigrants in exchange for $5.7 billion for the wall.

The offer seemed a departure from Trump’s aggressive style. But “The Art of the Deal” also preaches flexibility. “I never get too attached to one deal or one approach,” he writes. Last week, top Trump aides crafted the proposal with the Senate Republican leader.

Satisfying all constituencies in Washington, however, can be extraordinarily difficult – and with the House now in Democratic hands, enacting major legislation just got a lot harder. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi called Trump’s proposal a nonstarter before it was even announced, knowing that it would still contain $5.7 billion for the wall; high-profile conservatives slammed the immigration provisions as “amnesty.”

For Trump, now two years in office, it’s all part of the education of a still-novice politician.

“The complexity, the number of issues, and the number of parties at the table is exponentially more difficult in a presidential environment than dealing with some zero-sum, ‘one dollar more for you is one dollar less for me’ calculation in buying or selling a building,” says Marty Latz, a negotiations trainer and author of the book “The Real Trump Deal: An Eye-Opening Look at How He Really Negotiates.”

Another difference is that in business, when one deal falls apart, there may well be another opportunity elsewhere, with different people. As a businessman, Trump “really didn’t care about future relationships with his counterparts,” says Mr. Latz.

In Washington, there’s one Congress and one president. Unless Trump declares a national emergency and tries to do an end-run around Congress to fund the wall, he and the Democrats will have to come to terms to reopen the government, and, in general, learn to deal with one another.

The ‘School of Roy’ approach

Trump biographers point to other aspects of the president’s prior business practices as emblematic of how he operates today.

“It’s all about what you can get away with,” says Gwenda Blair, author of a 2000 biography called “The Trumps: Three Generations That Built an Empire.”

“He follows the ‘School of Roy’ approach,” she says, referring to early Trump lawyer Roy Cohn, infamous for representing the red-baiting Sen. Joe McCarthy in the 1950s. “Never concede, never back down, double down, any accusation that comes your way, heave it right back.”

Keeping a quarter of the government unfunded for over a month – and 800,000 federal workers going without pay – might have seemed impossible, Ms. Blair notes. But that’s where things stand today.

On Tuesday, a glimmer of hope emerged when the parties’ Senate leaders, Republican Mitch McConnell and Democrat Chuck Schumer, announced two procedural votes on Thursday – one on the president’s plan, the other to reopen the government through Feb. 8. The first measure looks sure to fail, while the fate of the second isn’t clear.

Through it all, Trump seems undaunted, despite polls that show more than half the country blaming him for the shutdown and his job approval in decline, including among his base.

Speaker Pelosi’s negotiating stance has also faced criticism. She insists the wall is “immoral” and offers just one dollar in funding. The moral framing, in particular, doesn’t leave wiggle room for compromise.

The Trump-Pelosi relationship was, until recently, respectful. “I like her,” the president said after the midterms. “She’s tough and she’s smart.” Notably, he has refrained from tagging her with a derogatory nickname.

Last week, their impasse over the border wall descended into tit-for-tat. Pelosi suggested Trump not deliver his State of the Union address from the Capitol, scheduled for Jan. 29, until the government reopened. The next day, Trump effectively canceled a Pelosi trip to Afghanistan. Over the weekend, Trump called Pelosi a “Radical Democrat” on Twitter.

This is not to say that Trump and Pelosi can’t make deals in the future. But for now, they’re both dug in, and both working their respective points of leverage.

Trump’s declining job approval – and growing share of the blame for the shutdown – have given Pelosi and her wingman, Senate minority leader Schumer, political leverage. The president didn’t help his cause when he told Pelosi and Schumer, in a televised Oval Office meeting on Dec. 11, that he’d be “proud” to shut down the government over the border wall.  

Still, overall support for the wall has grown, especially among Republicans. Today, 42 percent of Americans support the wall, up from 34 percent last January, according to a Washington Post/ABC News poll.

Despite reports of a frustrated Trump lashing out at aides behind the scenes, his public posture remains defiant.

“He takes a broad-shouldered approach,” says Darren Frame, a businessman who now teaches negotiation at Baylor University in Waco, Texas.

“Trump is really good at being the bad guy for a while,” says Mr. Frame, who uses “The Art of the Deal” as a teaching tool. “He’s pretty ego-driven, of course, which gives him a huge advantage in that he doesn’t worry so much about what people think of him, unless he thinks he’s wrongly accused of things. That’s when you see him fight back.”

A possible way out?

If the current standoff represents a classic case of “positional bargaining” – one side wins, the other side loses – experts say there’s an alternative approach, called interest-based negotiation.

“The basic idea here is, let’s not focus on positions, or what each side says they want: ‘I want a wall;’ ‘Well, we’re not going to give it to you,’ ” says Daniel Shapiro, director of the Harvard International Negotiation Program.

In this negotiation technique, the starting point is to look at the underlying interests.

“Why do you want a wall? Why do you not want a wall?” says Professor Shapiro, author of the book “Negotiating the Nonnegotiable.” “Is it the expenditure of funds, or is it differences in belief around security needs at the border? Is it precedents that you’re nervous about setting?”

Once the underlying interests are understood, then the negotiators can start to craft an agreement that works for everybody.

Shapiro pushes back on the idea that in the business world, Trump-style “positional bargaining” works better. Research shows that in most circumstances, interest-based negotiators do better, whether it’s in business, government, or the family, he says.

“President Trump is accustomed to positional bargaining, and I’d imagine at points it probably has done him well in business,” Shapiro says. “But in the Washington context, he estranges more and more people – and estranges those with whom he actually needs to work.”

Shapiro doesn’t let Pelosi and Schumer off the hook, either. In the Dec. 11 Oval Office meeting, everyone was posturing, he says, not engaging in productive dialogue.

The solution, he and others suggest, is to let subordinates work behind the scenes on a deal, away from the spotlight. The Trump proposal announced Saturday was crafted last Thursday by Vice President Mike Pence, senior adviser/son-in-law Jared Kushner, and Senate majority leader McConnell, and hailed by Republicans as an effort to break the stalemate. But there were no Democrats at the table.

Trump Senate ally Lindsey Graham (R) of South Carolina proposed reopening the government for a stretch, allowing workers to be paid and negotiators to work out a deal. Trump responded, No, let’s make a deal, then open up the government. Democrats insist on opening the government first, then negotiating a solution on immigration.

Senator Graham has supported the notion of Trump declaring a national emergency and repurposing federal money for the wall – a gambit that would certainly land in court. But at least Trump could tell his supporters he did everything he could. Trump has swung from saying he would almost definitely declare an emergency, to backing off the idea.

“In negotiation lingo, Trump calling a national emergency is his BATNA – his Best Alternative to a Negotiated Agreement,” says Shapiro. “But you know it’s clearly not attractive enough for him to, as yet, walk away from the negotiation table.”

Semantics can also play a role in conflict resolution, and allow both sides to save face. In any final resolution that involves money for the border, Trump can say he got his “wall,” Democrats can say they got “border security,” and each can declare victory to their respective political bases.

Blair, the Trump biographer, sees the border wall as more than just the fulfilling of a core campaign promise. It goes to the essence of what Trump is about.

“He has spent decades building up his brand – on buildings, on television,” she says. “His gut instinct, I suspect, is that the wall is part of the brand of being president.”

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