News analysis

Trump needs to negotiate like a boss as Congress returns to work

US President Donald Trump at the Loren Cook Company on Aug 30, 2017 in Springfield Missouri.
US President Donald Trump at the Loren Cook Company on Aug 30, 2017 in Springfield Missouri. PHOTO: AFP

WASHINGTON (NYTIMES) - Donald Trump the deal-maker heads into the autumn of his first year in as weak a negotiating position as any president in modern times - desperate for a victory yet hardly near consensus on any major priority, still able to dominate the national conversation but so far incapable of translating that into action.

A summer of tumult marked by staff shake-ups, legislative failures, intra-party feuds, a racially inflammatory controversy and a nuclear-edged war of words has left him at odds with his own Republican Party and supported by barely a third of the American public.

The list of daunting challenges has only grown with little sense of how he plans to tackle them beyond Twitter storms and declarations of determination.

As Congress returns to town on Tuesday (Sept 5), the president faces weeks of hard negotiations to overhaul the tax code, raise the debt ceiling, keep the government open, finance his border wall, and secure relief and reconstruction money for areas devastated by Hurricane Harvey.

On top of that, he plans to throw another polarising issue on the docket by scrapping President Barack Obama's program allowing younger unauthorized immigrants to stay in the country unless Congress acts to save it within six months.

"Legislatively, September may be the longest month of the year, with several must pass items that face an uphill climb," said Doug Heye, a longtime Republican strategist.

The president's decision to push the immigrant program to Congress "only makes that harder, on an issue that for years Republicans have struggled to make any headway on. The question is whether this was a strategic decision by the White House."

Trump's vaunted deal-making skills could also be put to the test in foreign policy as he decides how to respond to North Korea's nuclear saber-rattling while separately seeking to renegotiate the North American Free Trade Agreement (Nafta) with Mexico and Canada and broker peace between Israelis and Palestinians. And he may alienate America's traditional European allies if he tries to scuttle Barack Obama's nuclear agreement with Iran by declaring Teheran out of compliance over their objections.

Rather than making friends to accomplish these goals, Trump has alienated some of the very allies a president would normally rely on. As he pressures North Korea to curb its nuclear program, he has belittled South Korea for "appeasement" and threatened to tear up its trade deal with the United States.

As he lobbies lawmakers to back his legislative priorities, he has castigated Senator Mitch McConnell, the majority leader, and other Republicans.

While his approval ratings remain mired around 35 per cent, Trump's allies argue that he had a better summer than the Washington conventional wisdom would suggest and that he has a path forward. They contend that after the fights of early August, the president took on the mantle of a national leader with a vigorous and visible response to Hurricane Harvey, and that cleaning up the devastation may prove both a rallying point and a strategic leverage.

"It may sound counterintuitive, but the president heads into September with a bit of wind at his back," said Michael Dubke, who served as his White House communications director. "Harvey was handled well, tax reform is back on track, the debt ceiling showdown will be pushed to a later date and while there are no good choices in North Korea, the president's national security team is second to none."

On Tuesday afternoon, Trump will host a group that has been dubbed the Big Six to discuss his tax overhaul - McConnell; House Speaker Paul D. Ryan; Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin; Gary D. Cohn, the president's national economics adviser; and Senator Orrin G. Hatch of Utah and Rep. Kevin Brady of Texas, the Republican chairmen of the tax-writing committees. On Wednesday, Trump will host another White House meeting with McConnell, Ryan and their Democratic counterparts, Senator Chuck Schumer of New York and Rep. Nancy Pelosi of California.

Trump has long boasted of his art-of-the-deal negotiating skills and part of his appeal in last year's election was the hope that he could use them to finally break through a paralysed capital.

"Deals are my art form," he once said on Twitter. "Other people paint beautifully or write poetry. I like making deals, preferably big deals."

His first seven months in office have yet to produce any big deals, a failure highlighted most notably by the collapse of an effort to repeal Obama's health care program and replace it with a Republican-authored version. Allies said Trump's approach to negotiations, however, is to hold out for the best deal possible until the last moment, so it is too soon to judge.

"My style of deal-making is quite simple and straightforward," he once wrote. "I aim very high, and then I just keep pushing and pushing and pushing to get what I'm after. Sometimes I settle for less than I sought, but in most cases I still end up with what I want."

But those who have studied his career said that it has been marked by as many failed deals as successful ones. He bought an airline that failed. He bought a football team in a league that collapsed. He filed for bankruptcy protection multiple times.

"If you look at his record, there are a lot of deals that didn't work out," said Michael D'Antonio, a Trump biographer. "He is very good at promotion and creating the idea that he is a deal maker, but not very good at making actual successful deals."

In the end, some Democrats argue that Trump's very weakness may yet prove to be a boon. Since legislating entirely with fellow Republicans has yet to yield the results Trump had hoped, he may have more incentive to work with Democrats on areas where they could find agreement.

"I'm hopeful that the president has come to see that one-sided governing led by extremists is a recipe for failure," said Josh Gottheimer, Democrat-New Jersey, co-chairman of the Problem Solvers Caucus that includes 43 House members from both parties frustrated by inaction.

"It's clear that it's not just our side of the aisle that has raised issues," he noted. "But we have a responsibility to govern, and I believe that."