While Donald Trump may have been a political neophyte, he was no stranger to business. As a hard-boiled New York City real estate veteran and entrepreneur, his efficacy at navigating politics and transacting both successful and unsuccessful businesses is built on either his intrepid intuition or his bombast…depending on who you ask…and setting aside the silver spoon he inherited.
After the first few weeks of Donald Trump being sworn as the 45th President of the United States, it was clear that he would be bringing his own particular attitude and introducing a post-modern approach to politics in Washington D.C.
Much to his chagrin there was the pesky “domestic emoluments clause”, which states that a President could not “profit from ordinary market transactions.” So Trump announced that he would extricate himself from the day-to-day operations of his business to prevent any appearance of conflict of interest and to focus his attention on governing.
It may be argued that both politics and business are transactional industries. There are a host of phrases that embody the essence of both, “one hand washing the other”, “you scratch my back, I’ll scratch yours” and the one getting all the attention lately, “quid pro quo.”
In both politics and business, nuance is an integral ingredient in order to disguise the transactions and make the reciprocity work effectively. With that said, throughout his career, Trump has been known for many things…nuance was never one of them.
In politics, everyone understands that deal-making and negotiating are part of the process but as long as it remains largely invisible, most people don’t care. In other words, no one wants to see “how the sausage gets made.”
In business, and now in politics, Donald Trump likes to proclaim he is the master dealmaker. An idea he’s been jamming down our throats since he published his best selling book Art of the Deal. Perhaps that may have been slightly true when the book was written, the evidence since then tells a different story about his “dealmaking” prowess.
Nonetheless, Trump was able to convince the American electorate that he was the man to sit in the big chair and that his skill set would transfer to the White House. In short, he won by promising to “drain the swamp” and bring his negotiating and transactional business savvy to Washington D.C.
And the rest of the world.
“SHOW ME THE MONEY!”
The worlds first exposure to this was in December of 2016 when lobbyists funded by Saudi Arabia spent over $270,000 booking 500 rooms at the Trump International Hotel in Washington D.C. Shortly afterward, President Trump announced that Saudi Arabia would be purchasing 350 billion dollars of military arms from the United States over ten years.
While largely a ceremonial gesture, Trump also used the occasion to announce that Saudi Arabia would be the first country he would visit as President.
Above the rabble of selling arms to Saudi Arabia, Trump assured American citizens and lawmakers that 110 billion would be purchased immediately. Saudi Arabia has since become one of the biggest arms purchasers from the United States.
According to the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute America supplies the Kingdom with 70 percent of its arms.
However, despite their upswing in arms purchases, as of October 2018, Saudi Arabia has only purchased about 14.8 billion dollars, if not less, of arms from the United States.
When considering Trump’s approach to foreign policy, his transactional approach can be found in the current trade war with China. Despite claiming to have a great relationship with China’s President Xi Jinping, the trade war has been punitive to both countries.
The geopolitical nuance needed to reach an agreement is something President Trump appears incapable of doing. It doesn’t help that his “bromance” with Xi Jinping cooled considerably In August after Trump referred to him as “the enemy.”
In any event, it was recently announced that the trade war with China may be easing; a war that has just begun to impact countries from Iceland to Japan. These ongoing negotiations resulted in the idea of rolling back the tariffs that the US and China have placed on each other. While the idea has been embraced by representatives from both China and the US, it’s been met with resistance within the Trump administration.
Aside from money, the most valued commodity driving President Trump’s foreign policy is respect.
A few months ago he abruptly canceled a visit to Denmark, a longtime NATO ally. Before his visit, President Trump had mentioned an interest in purchasing Greenland. When the Danish president balked, Trump felt slighted and responded by saying:
“Respect must be shown to the United States.”
This particular “disrespect” had two significant impacts. One, it soured a relationship with an ally. Two, it spoiled any discussion about the purchase of Greenland which has been considered a strategic purchase for America for numerous presidents.
President Trump has also had minor dust-ups with Canada and a long standing feud with Mexico about immigration.
Where he may sense disrespect with some allies, President Trump appears to both respect and feel respected by two of the world’s most notorious leaders, Vladimir Putin of Russia and Kim Jong-un of North Korea.
With Putin, Trump has had five personal meetings and nine phone conversations with him since his election. Including a private two-hour conversation attended by only their respective translators which has caused much speculation. President Trump also has publicly believed Putin and questioned American security agencies’ results detailing the evidence on how Russia interfered with the 2016 Presidential Election.
Also, after withdrawing American troops from defending America’s Kurdish allies in Northern Syria, President Trump proclaimed the arrival of Russian troops in the area as a “victory.”
In October of 2017, President Trump took to Twitter to chastise his former Secretary of State Rex Tillerson for wasting time talking to the “Little Rocket Man”, North Korean dictator Kim Jung-un. Just a few months later, President Trump met with the “Little Rocket Man” himself to negotiate the dictators’ nuclear arms build-up (which the dictator ignored).
At their second meeting, Trump became the first sitting American president to step foot in North Korea.
Despite active American sanctions on both Russian and North Korea, the two strong-armed leaders have proven their respect to President Trump. However, they’ve done nothing to assuage worldwide tensions or fears about either country.
I don’t think we can rule out that Putin and Kim Jung-un are toying with President Trump’s vanity.
It seems the easiest way to win his approval…not that they need it, they’re both brutal leaders. Trump has proven that if you’re in his good graces, you can get away with murder. Quite often, literally (see Saudi Arabia and the murder of dissident reporter Jamal Khashoggi).
In August of 2019, CNN noted that President Trump’s “US foreign policy often looks like an extension of the family business.”
Just as his impeachment hearings were beginning in October, President Trump doubled down on his views on foreign policy and business. He announced that next year’s G7 conference would be held at his own Trump National Doral Miami Resort. Once again facing rabble, he changed his mind but not without blaming Democrats and referring to the emoluments clause as “phony.”
President Trump appears to be running his diplomatic and foreign policy operations in the same ways he’s handled his business:
- Making every decision himself by relying on his “great and unmatched wisdom.”
- Keeping it all transactional and out of the ordinary, to say the least.
In American politics, the line between business and politics is rapidly disintegrating. The skills required to find success in each may even overlap. However, the subtle differences required by each do not always ensure that success in one will lead to success in the other…or success in either.
Donald Trump has driven his businesses into Chapter 11 bankruptcy six times, leaving shareholders, investors and taxpayers holding bill. He’s absorbed little more than public embarrassment for his incompetence. As he’s shown repeatedly, shame and embarrassment doesn’t affect him.
Does no one else recognize the pattern taking shape? Maybe there is some truth to what Senator Lindsay Graham said when he suggested Trump was too dumb to follow through on a quid pro quo.
I can’t believe I’m saying this but given President Trump’s history in business, I’m inclined to agree with Senator Graham.
This doesn’t bode well for America.