President Trump signed, late Sunday, an omnibus appropriations bill in which he did not get a single thing he wanted. He demanded changes to the bill – upping stimulus payments from $600 to $2,000 and scrapping a ton of foreign aid chief among them – but caved after just a few days.
That he caved was no big surprise. Trump’s demands were political poison. Republicans weren’t going to be able to stomach scrapping all foreign aid because foreign aid money is primarily used to purchase American goods, so at best they could remove some token aid to smaller countries but not substantial stuff, like the $500 million in defense aid to Israel Congress included in the omnibus bill that funds federal spending. Democrats knew that Republicans couldn’t take Trump’s demand to reduce federal aid seriously but they also knew that the public was more interested in getting $2,000 checks than they were in the other provisions of the spending bill, so they went to work quickly, framing their support as support of the president and pushing a wedge between Republicans and Trump.
It’s hardly four-dimensional chess but the move seems to have worked. Republicans balked at the increased stimulus, Democrats made it clear they weren’t willing to talk about foreign aid, and Trump was stuck, because Trump is not very good at this.
Trump’s pitch from day one is that he’s a great negotiator. It’s the core idea in The Art of the Deal, the Trump-embossed (but not Trump-written) business book in which he is depicted as an incredible negotiator, able to get business leaders to buy-in to his projects because he has a way with people. Throughout his four years in office, though, Trump demonstrated over and over again that this isn’t true.
But the COVID-19 relief bill debacle – hell, almost everything about 2020, even – shows something more than just “Trump is not a good negotiator.” It shows that the tactics that worked for Trump in the private sector don’t work in the public sector – that effective businesspeople don’t necessarily make effective governors.
You can pressure courts to throw out debts in bankruptcy, but there’s no electoral bankruptcy that lets you renegotiate your vote count. And when there’s a deal on the table that you negotiated, you can’t threaten to walk unless you get what you want because the president, fundamentally, can’t walk. You can walk away from a building project, no problem. But there’s no escaping the duties of the presidency.
Trump has tried. He took to golfing – something he’s done more than any president in recent history – over Christmas. He tried to let his staff handle negotiations over COVID relief so he could escape to Mar-a-Lago, but they were unsure how to proceed. After all, they’d negotiated the deal he just blew up. But just because you’re on a golf course in Florida doesn’t mean you’ve escaped. Trump still had to make a real decision: veto the omnibus bill and demand changes formally or acquiesce and sign it.
No, there’s no escaping until January. And while Trump continues to proclaim that he’ll still be in office then, the World’s Greatest Negotiator has already discovered that he can’t simply make demands and expect fellow Republicans to go along with them. Not anymore.