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Trump has stayed out of government shutdown talks. That might be helping

Key Points
  • As president, Donald Trump sees himself as a central character in every high-stakes negotiation his administration undertakes, including the deal to avoid a government shutdown.
  • But people close to Trump have long known that his active participation in sensitive talks is more likely to endanger them than to advance them.
  • "The president tweets and talks aggressively about topics that he thinks are winning issues." But "some issues are better without a lot of heat," said a former Trump trade official.
President Donald Trump looks up as he holds a Cabinet meeting at the White House in Washington, U.S., October 17, 2018.
Kevin Lamarque | Reuters

WASHINGTON --- On Wednesday morning, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., said a spending bill to keep the government open through Feb. 8 had been finalized overnight and would be introduced in the Senate within hours. Democrats also signaled they were on board with the deal, which would fund the government for six weeks, but provide no additional money for President Donald Trump's border wall.

The only person who had not yet weighed in on the deal was Trump himself. While congressional leaders were busy negotiating, the president was still sounding a defiant note. "One way or the other, we will win on the Wall!" he tweeted early Wednesday.

As the window for reaching a deal grew narrower this week, members of Congress anxiously waited for guidance from the White House on what kind of deal the president would accept.

But none came.

Instead, there was a barrage of tweets from Trump about the border wall he has long promised to build, and hints from press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders that the administration might try to fund the wall by siphoning funds away from other government agencies.

On Capitol Hill, meanwhile, the rough outlines of a short-term spending bill to keep the government open began to take shape on Tuesday evening. At the White House, Trump was attending two previously scheduled holiday receptions.

If Trump signs this continuing resolution before departing for his private club in Florida on Friday, as lawmakers in both parties hope he will, it would avert a partial government shutdown that would have hurt Republicans politically.

But it would also mark a stunning retreat from the president's negotiating position just a week ago, when he told Democratic congressional leaders in a contentious Oval Office meeting that he would be "proud to shut down the government for border security."

Trump and Pelosi get into heated exchange over border wall

There has arguably never been a time in Trump's life when he viewed himself as more of a central character in high-stakes negotiations than he does now, in his current role as president of the United States.

But in reality, people close to Trump have long since realized that his active participation in sensitive negotiations is often more likely to endanger a good outcome than to advance it.

"The president tweets and talks aggressively about topics that he thinks are winning issues, and that can translate into a lot of pressure on negotiators at the working level, both the politicals and the career" bureaucrats, said a former Trump administration official who has participated in high-level trade talks led by the president. "Some issues are better without a lot of heat."

Not everyone is as measured in their critiques.

"Trump is an anarchist. It was his approach in business, it is his approach as president," said Jack O'Donnell, a former president of the Trump Plaza Hotel and Casino in a June interview with The New York Times.

"It does not take good negotiating skills to cause chaos. Will this ever lead to concessions? Maybe, but concessions to what? Not anything that resembles a deal," O'Donnell added. "I just do not see him getting much done."

That Trump could prove to be a net negative for sensitive negotiations is a tough pill to swallow for a president who ran as the world's greatest dealmaker. On the campaign trail, Trump pledged to strike "beautiful" deals with America's allies, and to extract painful concessions from his adversaries.

But two years into his first term, many of the deals that Trump has directed the most attention toward have yet to materialize. There is no trade deal with China, no immigration deal with Congress, no nuclear deal with North Korea, and no deal to repeal and replace Obamacare.

This is not to say that there have not been any big deals signed on Trump's watch. This fall, there was a major agreement reached to update NAFTA for the 21st century. The talks that led to this deal were overseen by U.S. Trade Representative Robert Lighthizer. But Trump's son-in-law, Jared Kushner, also played a key role in resolving tensions that Trump had aggravated.

There was also a deal reached last weekend to keep the Paris climate agreement alive. This time, the deal came together with the help of U.S. negotiators despite Trump's announcement last year that the U.S. would withdraw from the pact at the earliest date allowed under the rules, which is late 2020.

Trump and the leaders of Mexico and Canada sign trade pact at G-20 in Buenos Aires

This past summer, a long-term deal was reached between Congress and the White House to save the Overseas Private Investment Corp., which provides financing for American companies seeking to do business in the developing world. Trump's first ever presidential budget in 2017 called for OPIC's elimination.

The OPIC deal followed two agreements negotiated with Congress at the beginning of the year which ended partial government shutdowns.

Still, these successful agreements all seem to have at least one thing in common that differentiates them from deals that have collapsed: At their most critical moments, Trump was largely absent.

In several cases, Trump had even loudly opposed the deals before his administration later quietly agreed to them.

Despite appearances, a former Trump campaign aide, who declined to be named, cautioned against viewing these negotiations as staffers defying the president. What's really going on, he said, is that Trump is choosing what to focus on and what to ignore.

"He sees what he wants to see, and he doesn't focus on what he doesn't want to think about. So he knows what's going on, he's just looking in another direction," said the former aide.

The White House did not immediately respond to the characterizations of Trump's negotiating style made by his former staffers.

But with no viable options in sight except the CR to avert a government shutdown, the rest of this week is already showing signs of being another time when Trump chooses to ignore a deal that no longer interests him.

But that may not necessarily be a bad thing. On the contrary, a little less heat might be just what this deal needs.