It’s crunch time for President Trump’s deal-making skills.
Having been much criticized in the past for touting unclear wins as major victories—in particular last year’s detail-light initial agreement with Kim Jong Un—Trump has now walked away from his summit with the North Korean dictator, after Kim pushed for the wholesale lifting of U.S. sanctions on North Korea. “Sometimes you have to walk and this was just one of those times,” said Trump.
True enough, though there are multiple ways in which to interpret this latest development. Perhaps the president has taken that previous criticism on board. Maybe he was just stung by Pyongyang’s continuation of its nuclear program after last year’s vague promises. Or Trump may have just taken heed of what his advisors have been telling him: that abandoning sanctions would be a bridge too far at this stage of the negotiations, even if it meant Kim’s regime agreeing to take significant steps towards denuclearization.
Either way, the abandonment of the summit points to a change in tack that leaves Trump’s negotiating style less easy to pigeonhole than it previously was. The question now is whether Trump’s style in relation to the Chinese trade negotiations—also fairly conciliatory, judging by the last meeting between Trump and Xi—will also change.
Last week provided a near-satirical episode in which, in front of the media, chief negotiator Robert Lighthizer directly contradicted the president over the meaning of memorandums of understanding—a standard device that would have formed the basis of any new deal, but a term that Trump clearly doesn’t like, believing incorrectly that MOUs cannot be binding. After Lighthizer explained that MOU was a contract of sorts, Trump said “I disagree,” prompting the top Chinese negotiator to laugh out loud, and browbeating Lighthizer into agreeing that any deal must be referred to as a “trade agreement.”
Will Trump listen to his experienced, expert U.S. trade representative as the China talks enter what may be their final stages? Or will he settle for a weak deal in order to achieve a conclusion, as the Hoover Institution’s Niall Ferguson has warned might happen?
There are many variables in play right now, especially considering China’s role in the North Korea talks, but as these sagas develop we should get to see how good a dealmaker Trump really is.
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