Art of the retreat: Summit failure further scuffs Trump’s dealmaker claims
He alone can’t fix it: Twice in as many months, at home and now abroad, President Trump has gambled on his self-touted negotiating prowess and lost.
The president’s walkout Thursday from his summit in Vietnam with North Korean leader Kim Jong Un was in keeping with his abrupt departure from a pivotal meeting with House Speaker Nancy Pelosi in January on border security. That earlier impasse didn’t end well for him. Congress ultimately rejected his demand for billions to build a wall between the U.S. and Mexico, his signature campaign promise.
Trump suffered in both instances by insisting on his “I alone can fix it” approach to the nation’s and the world’s problems. He raised expectations of success in each case and personalized the negotiations, all but dismissing the typical groundwork of advisors — both to persuade Kim to halt North Korea’s nuclear weapons program and to force Pelosi’s agreement to a border wall.
Trump framed the border wall dispute as a battle of wills between him and Pelosi (D-Calif.), rather than a legislative clash between the administration and Congress over domestic priorities. And instead of giving his negotiators time to hammer out a complex nuclear pact with their counterparts in Pyongyang, or just to tee up preliminary agreements, Trump insisted on having a hastily planned second summit with Kim — based on a relationship that he continued to call “very strong” and “very warm” even after their talks broke down.
The president now risks a similar scenario with Chinese President Xi Jinping.
In recent days, Trump has all but promised a U.S.-China summit at his Mar-a-Lago resort in Florida in March, retreating from his tariff threats and raising expectations for a trade deal. While claiming progress in staff-level negotiations, he has told reporters that only he and Xi can settle final issues of intellectual property, technology transfers and market access — knotty disputes that have lingered for decades.
The failure in Hanoi was just one setback in a brutal week for the president.
While Trump relishes televised pomp and ceremony, his summit with Kim was overshadowed when his personal attorney for a decade, Michael Cohen, testified in Congress on Wednesday to new details depicting Trump as a “racist,” a “con man,” and “a cheat.” In a dramatic reveal, Cohen produced a check that he said was reimbursement to him for pre-election hush money to a stripper who alleged a tryst with Trump — a check the president wrote after he took office. Cohen also hinted at other legal problems for the president.
As Trump flew home from Hanoi on Thursday, new data undercut his repeated boasts that the economy would grow by at least 3% and as much as 6% because of tax and regulation cuts. Government figures showed growth for 2018 stuck at 2.9%, the same rate achieved in President Obama’s best year.
Like the Kim summit, the developments demonstrated the risks of Trump’s go-it-alone dealmaking style and boastful rhetoric. In business, he often operated by intimidating his foes, engaging in brinkmanship to force concessions and then moving on to the next project if things unraveled.
In governing, he has found that harder to do.
Trump’s effort to personalize deals has raised the stakes to levels widely seen as unrealistic. Often, he can’t simply walk away; certain legislation, including government spending bills and a pending measure to raise the nation’s borrowing limit, must be passed into law. And Trump’s adversaries have shown a greater willingness to call him on his bluffs — both Democrats newly empowered by the House majority they won in November, and foreign leaders no longer so cowed by him.
Pelosi, despite a 35-day partial government shutdown that Trump provoked, refused to give him the $5.7 billion he wanted for a border wall. Next he declared a national emergency to circumvent Congress and get the money, trying his luck that federal courts and Republicans in Congress would back him. With some Senate Republicans threatening to join Democrats in opposing the declaration as executive overreach, Trump threatened Thursday in a Fox News interview that they would put themselves “at great jeopardy” if they cross him.
Trump’s setbacks lately have been magnified by his own salesmanship.
After the president’s first summit with Kim last year in Singapore, he quickly insisted in a memorable tweet, and repeated at political rallies, that the nuclear threat from North Korea was over. He has praised Kim as a strong and effective leader and mused openly about getting a Nobel Peace Prize.
Yet just weeks before his second summit, Trump’s intelligence officials testified before Congress that North Korea remained actively involved in building its weapons program and was unlikely to relinquish it. He rejected their findings, and proceeded with his summitry.
Robert L. Gallucci, a former envoy who led U.S. talks with North Korea in the 1990s, said there were many bad days when he negotiated with his counterparts from the notoriously wily adversary. But they happened largely outside the public glare, at the staff level.
For Trump, the breakdown was all his, and Kim’s, with thousands of reporters from around the world bearing witness.
“It’s not the way we’re used to doing it,” Gallucci said. “You don’t start with summits. You finish with a summit, and you make sure that all the prep work is done. And then the two big guys presumably come together and sign something.”
With Thursday’s breakdown, Trump said the two countries’ negotiators will likely return to the table.
“The problem here, though, is that negotiators for President Trump can reach deals, and then he doesn’t approve them,” said Joel Wit, another veteran of negotiations with North Korea. He added: “That’s a little bit disconcerting, to have that kind of situation.”
Some foreign policy experts had worried that Trump would strike a bad deal in Hanoi given his eagerness for an achievement. Many, including Galluci, expressed relief when Trump walked away on Thursday.
“No deal is better than a bad deal,” said Sue Mi Terry, who handled Korea issues for the CIA under President George W. Bush. Terry wondered whether Trump, distracted by the Cohen hearing, simply lacked the patience to sit down with Kim for the hours it would take for such a complex negotiation.
Others also questioned whether the North Koreans overplayed their hand, perhaps because they read Trump’s effusive appeals to Kim’s greatness as signs of weakness.
“Privately, they think ‘What can we get out of this guy?’” said Christopher R. Hill, who led the American side in talks with North Korea in the 2000s. “It sure doesn’t make them think that they have to make a concession or anything. Quite to the contrary.”
Times staff writer Eli Stokols in Hanoi contributed to this report.
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