Two countries, two leaders, two approaches—yet both succeeded, for different reasons. The calls with Malcolm Turnbull and Enrique Peña Nieto are not only a valuable document of how diplomacy works; they would also set a pattern. Time and again, foreign leaders have found that Trump is hardly the hardened negotiator he claims, but is instead a pushover. If they can get into a one-on-one conversation with Trump, they can usually convince him to come around to their position. If that was true on paying for the wall and taking refugees, it stands to reason it would be true for lesser Trump priorities, too.
Granted, international diplomacy is a lot tougher than cutting real estate deals in New York, and there’s still a lot of time left on the presidential clock to make Trump great again. But half a year into the Trump era, there’s little evidence of Donald Trump, master negotiator. Quite the opposite, in fact: In several very important areas and with some very important partners, Trump seems to be getting the short end of the proverbial stick. The president who was going to put America first and outmaneuver allies and adversaries alike seems to be getting outsmarted by both at every turn, while the United States gets nothing.
Let’s start with the president’s recent encounters with the president of Russia, a man who admittedly has confounded his fellow world leaders for nearly two decades. Apparently without any reciprocal concessions, the world’s greatest negotiator bought into Russia’s plan for Syria, where U.S. and Russian goals are in conflict; ended America’s covert program of support for the moderate Syrian opposition, then confirmed its highly classified existence on Twitter; and had an ostentatious one-on-one meeting with the Kremlin strongman at the G-20 dinner, sticking a finger in the eye of some of America’s closest allies. It’s bad enough to give Putin the global spotlight he craves while accepting Russia’s seriously flawed vision for Syria. But to do so without getting anything in return gives “the art of the deal” a whole new meaning. Trump’s failure to hold Putin accountable for Russian interference in the presidential election is the most egregious example of putting Russia’s interests first and America’s interests last, but it’s hardly the whole of the matter. There’s no other way to put it: Trump has become Putin’s poodle. If it weren’t for Congress, public opinion and the media, Trump would be giving away more of the farm on sanctions, Russian aggression in Ukraine and other issues that divide the United States and Russia. That’s not winning; it’s losing.