President Donald Trump's first 100 days were devoid of any promised dealmaking triumphs, and was followed by a budget deal in which Democrats won almost everything they wanted, and Trump got nothing but a tiny fig-leaf hologram — funding for border security that he tried in vain to pretend was initial funding for his wall. Trump’s initial record of non-accomplishment was striking enough to start raising questions about his self-branding as a consummate dealmaker.
Which is why getting Obamacare repeal through the House was a very big deal — even though it may well put the GOP House majority at risk, despite epic levels of gerrymandering.
Cook Political Report immediately shifted its ratings of 20 GOP seats the day after the vote, saying, “House Republicans' willingness to spend political capital on a proposal that garnered the support of just 17 percent of the public in a March Quinnipiac poll is consistent with past scenarios that have generated a midterm wave.”
Details like that are not Trump’s problem, however. They never are in the deals he cuts. He needed the House repeal vote to restore his get-things-done image. He needed a “big win,” and the “fake news” media he loves to hate has already helped him on that score. But that’s not what comes out of a closer side-by-side look at his budget-deal failure and the Trumpcare success.
[jwplayer file="http://media.salon.com/2017/05/ed2a583ce8f8c33a69a37c2aeff6f7af.mp4" image="http://media.salon.com/2017/05/06425a93c8103d9fa92876827fb62c99_1.jpg"][/jwplayer]
In big-picture terms, the budget bill contained no funding of the border wall; no defunding of sanctuary cities, Obamacare subsidies or Planned Parenthood; no drastic cuts to the EPA; and a $2 billion increase for the National Institutes of Health, in place the $1.2 billion cut sought by Trump. Obamacare repeal even more blatantly doesn’t deliver what Trump promised. It will cut roughly 24 million people off of Medicaid, as the CBO score of the last bill showed, while Trump promised to protect Medicaid. It will reduce Medicare benefits, which Trump also promised to protect, and it will gut coverage for pre-existing conditions.
In short, Trump’s “success” in “repealing and replacing” is a much worse deal than failure would have been. It even makes his budget failure look like a sparkling success. To see things any other way — as Trump and the GOP so desperately want you to do — you not only have to ignore the facts, but an almost unprecedented chorus of voices from civil society as well: the American Medical Association, AARP, the March of Dimes, etc.
It’s still possible that Trump could pull this deal off — more possible than most people realize. The Senate could pass a significantly less draconian health care bill, and the House could approve it — or a compromise bill worked out in a conference committee — thereby providing survival ammunition for House members who just cast seemingly suicidal votes. Maybe only 14 million people would lose coverage. Maybe pre-existing condition protections would be significantly spared. Trump would “win.” He wouldn't have delivered what he promised, but the political damage would be sustainable — perhaps. Such an outcome could easily help build GOP support for him, which in turn might make it possible for him to accomplish other things as well. So from Trump’s point of view, it’s worth the risk — that other people alone will carry.
This is the real meaning of the “Art of the Deal” for Trump: It’s not the actual content of the deal that matters, it’s how you’re able to portray it to the world, and use it as a stepping-stone to the next deal, and the one after that.
But what does Trump’s actual record as a dealmaker look like? “The Art of the Deal” was ghostwritten for Trump by Tony Schwartz in the mid-1980s and published in 1987, just two years after Trump destroyed the USFL, with his suicidal effort to go head to head against the NFL, a truly artful deal if ever there was one. As Schwartz told Jane Mayer last July, he now regrets his role in helping create Trump’s image. If he were writing it today, “Schwartz said, it would be a very different book with a very different title. Asked what he would call it, he answered, ‘The Sociopath.’” As a magazine writer, he had previously painted a very different picture of Trump, Mayer recalled:
In 1985, he’d published a piece in New York called “A Different Kind of Donald Trump Story,” which portrayed him not as a brilliant mogul but as a ham-fisted thug who had unsuccessfully tried to evict rent-controlled and rent-stabilized tenants from a building that he had bought on Central Park South. Trump’s efforts — which included a plan to house homeless people in the building in order to harass the tenants — became what Schwartz described as a “fugue of failure, a farce of fumbling and bumbling.”
That’s a far more representative picture of what Trump’s deal-making is all about. He frequently pays too much or otherwise invests foolishly, counting on his ability to squeeze the life out of others down the line, as he’s done in numerous lawsuits over the years. Altogether, USA Today counted more than 3,500 lawsuits in which Trump has been involved. Its reporters compared Trump’s litigation record to five other top real-estate figures, and found that “Trump has been involved in more legal skirmishes than all five of the others — combined.”
This record alone shows that Trump's not a good dealmaker. A good deal is one that leaves everybody happy. Trump points out that he won most of the suits he's involved in, but that's largely because he was usually matched against people with far fewer resources who simply couldn't spend enough to have a chance. The main point, however, is that a good dealmaker would never have been involved in so many lawsuits to begin with.
Prior to "The Art of the Deal," Trump’s initial success owed far more to his father than he ever admits — thanks to a million-dollar loan — and was matched by an ongoing string of failures as well. Afterward, he bankrupted himself in the casino business, a truly remarkable feat. He then recovered with substantial help from shadowy international partnerships. Indeed, it could be argued that a major reason he keeps his taxes hidden is to keep the world from knowing exactly how the image of his economic recovery was fabricated.
Many of the sordid highlights were captured by Kurt Eichenwald last August, in a story simply titled, “Donald Trump's Many Business Failures, Explained.” Summing up his account of Trump’s early record, Eichenwald wrote:
Trump is rich because he was born rich — and without his father repeatedly bailing him out, he would have likely filed for personal bankruptcy before he was 35. His casino failures had multiple causes, including his own indisciplined management style. Another key problem was his shaky financing. He promised the Casino Control Commission that “banks would be practically throwing money at him, and at prime rates,” unlike other developers dependent on high-interest junk bonds — which he ended up using himself, after all the banks turned him down. But the most glaring cause of Trump’s casino failures was his impulsive investment in three competing casinos, pitting them against one another — a truly delusional alt-“business plan.”
But it’s Trump’s recovery after his casino disasters on which he built his current reputation. One aspect of this fraud is clearly visible, Eichenwald notes. “Trump falsely claimed in two of his books that he owed $9.2 billion, rather than the actual number, $3.4 billion, making his recovery seem far more impressive.” How much he actually repaid, how much he wriggled out of, how much was paid by taxpayers as he deducted it from his taxes going forward — we can’t know any of this for certain, because he won't release his taxes. But it seems probable that Trump only recovered from bankruptcy through four main avenues, in which he made money in various ways, regardless of how well the deals involved turned out.
First, Trump cashed in on reality TV with "The Apprentice," a show that made the top 10 only in its first season, and never made the top 40 in its “Celebrity” reboot. The illusion of his success with this show was bolstered by NBC’s prolonged ratings struggles over the same time, making Trump a big fish in a shrinking small pond.
Second, Trump used the illusion of this success to open a variety of other doors, especially naming-rights deals — some in construction, and others in a wide range of businesses he knew little about and never really took seriously. Many of these have failed. Rolling Stone chronicled some of them in “Donald Trump's 13 Biggest Business Failures”: Trump magazine, Trump Mortgage, Trump Steaks, Trump Vodka and of course Trump University.
Third, Trump engaged in wide-ranging deals with Russian and other kleptocratic actors willing to lose large sums in order to launder the rest, as I described here in January, drawing largely on “The Curious World of Donald Trump’s Private Russian Connections” by investigative economist and journalist Jim Henry. As I noted then:
Trump’s various unsavory Russia connections aren’t one-offs, Henry argues. He proceeds to document a much broader pattern, showing that “whatever the nature of President-elect Donald Trump’s relationship with President Putin, he has certainly managed to accumulate direct and indirect connections with a far-flung private Russian/FSU network of outright mobsters, oligarchs, fraudsters, and kleptocrats.”
Trump has engaged in deals with similarly suspect actors all across the globe, including figures associated with authoritarian leaders he has recently praised, such as Recep Tayyip Erdogan in Turkey and Rodrigo Duterte in the Philippines. Russia isn’t alone, but it’s emblematic of the kind of dark dealmaking on which Trump’s post-casino bankruptcy reputation was built.
None of these "deal" models are generally viable. They represent niche and/or quasi-criminal exploits that are commonly shunned by those with actual top-notch dealmaking abilities. Working so long in such sub-prime situations, Trump has lost whatever real first-class dealmaking acumen he might once have had — and Eichenwald’s reporting casts considerable doubt on how much acumen he ever had. So it's really no surprise we've seen Trump floundering so far, and we should only expect more of the same.
The House repeal of Obamacare is being touted as a counternarrative: See, Trump can get things done after all. But a White House celebration after passing a bill through the House is more a sign of weakness than of strength. No one seems to remember any previous president ever doing such a thing. It reads less as confidence than as desperation, unless the president can fool folks into believing otherwise. And fooling people — unlike dealmaking — is something that Trump actually excels at.