Master of the No Deal

Alan Zendell, May 28, 2019
The Master of the Deal flew off to Japan this holiday weekend to meet with Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, one of his few reliable allies in east Asia. When North Korea was firing ballistic missiles over Japan in 2017, Abe needed to ensure that he could count on the American military to defend his country, but it was more than just garden variety saber-rattling. Abe knows his own history. He is aware of the atrocities committed against Korea by Japan during World War 2, and even two generations later, people, especially paranoid North Koreans, remember things like that.
While other world leaders ridiculed Trump behind the scenes, Abe held his nose and did what he had to. Like his counterparts in other countries he understood that the price of assured support was uncompromising loyalty, and no matter what outrageous things Trump said or tweeted, Abe always agreed and never contradicted him.
The Memorial Day visit to Japan was a natural choice by a president who feels under siege at home and privately, in most of the rest of the world. A bilateral trade agreement was in the works, and Trump’s ego badly needed a win. It should have been a slam dunk, but Kim Jong Un changed the game.

Understanding full well that Trump is unnerved by Joe Biden’s popularity and likability, Kim directed his state media to attack Biden as “a fool with low IQ.” At about the same time, Abe, with support from John Bolton, Trump’s war hawk National Security Advisor, was accusing North Korea of violating their agreement to stop testing missiles, and Trump was again proclaiming to the world that he is a stable genius. How did Trump react?

He shot himself in both feet. First, he shocked everyone by ignoring his real agenda and agreeing with Kim’s assessment of Joe Biden. It was a perfect storm for Trump, sucking up to Kim and attacking the man most likely to unseat him in a single photo op. But what about Abe’s concern over those missiles? No problem for Trump. He disagreed with both Abe and his own people, announcing that Kim’s missile launches didn’t trouble him a bit and humiliating Abe in the bargain.

Just when it seemed that Trump would return home leaving everyone shell-shocked, he seemed to recall that he was there to strike a trade deal with Japan. He still had one bullet left, and he used it to kill whatever faint hope remained for a successful outcome, threatening Abe with massive tariffs on Japanese automobiles. The Master of the Deal left Japan with no trade deal and no end to his tariff war with China in sight. Waiting for him in Washington were angry, shocked politicians of both parties because the main headlines following his trip were that he used the international stage to attack Joe Biden, and that he incomprehensibly continued his love affair with Kim at the expense of everything else.

Even Trump supporters must ask themselves what that was all about. Does anyone believe that Trump making nice again with Kim against the advice of virtually everyone improved the situation with North Korea? It’s been clear to everyone that a successful negotiation with Kim will only happen if China uses its influence to push him toward an accommodation. Yet Trump continues to antagonize China seeming to believe that he can take on the entire world single-handedly while alienating his own advisors and allies as well as his own Congress.

This goes way beyond style and dispensing with political correctness. The president describes himself as a brilliant deal maker, but absent the advantage his money gives him in business, his approach to negotiation based on misdirection and chaos isn’t working. There is no evidence that any real progress has been made in improving our relationship with any of our adversaries – Russia, China, North Korea, Iran – and as for our allies, most of them hope that if they simply ignore Mr. Trump, there’s a good chance that he will be gone by the end of next year, and the world can return to “normal.”

Trump’s bullying tactics in the world of business don’t work either on the international stage or in dealing with Congress and the courts. Rather, they paint a picture of Trump as someone who has no respect for truth or any form of correctness. Why would anyone, either a foreign head of state or a Congressional leader, deal with someone who can never be trusted to follow through on anything he says or promises unless they had no alternative?

One of my favorite children’s stories is the emperor’s new clothes. Trump has shown clearly that the master deal maker he promised he would be must feel quite chilled whenever the wind blows.

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