Donald Trump’s latest statements at the New York Times demonstrated an amazing “flexibility” (in other words, he changed long-held positions). If you were scared of Trump’s rhetoric, perhaps this encouraged you. But once you understand the dangers of negotiating in bad faith, your optimism will evaporate.
What is bad faith?
In a negotiation, each side develops an understanding of the other’s position. For example, Barack Obama and leaders in Congress needed to know where each other were coming from to find a way out of the impasse over funding the government and raising the debt ceiling. Negotiators can pull all sorts of stunts — like bad-mouthing their opponents, leaking inside information, distorting facts, and brinksmanship — and still eventually end up with a deal. But if a negotiator changes position and interests randomly from moment to moment, then there can be no progress, because nobody knows where they stand. Negotiations can’t move unless they have a place to move from.
I’ve experienced this personally. I once was deep into negotiating a business deal between my company and another company. We were haggling about money, but most of the other issues were settled. Then the person with whom I was negotiating suddenly pulled the plug without explanation — the best I could figure, the company’s management had a sudden change of heart and told my negotiating partner to stop working with me. Not only was there no deal, but I no longer trusted the company or the negotiating partner.
In a bad-faith negotiation, one of the parties violates trust. They either change their position without warning, or have no intention of following through on commitments. And as I learned from my experience, bad-faith negotiation not only scuttles the deal, but damages the reputation of the negotiator and prospects for any future deals by that party with anybody.
Trump at the Times is bad faith in action
Donald Trump has changed his positions quite a bit — for example, on the question of whether women should be punished for getting abortions. But his consistent, hard-line positions on certain issues, such as torture, the corruption of Hillary Clinton, and global warming, gave voters an idea of what they were getting. In his latest visit to the New York Times, though, he appeared to change positions on these issues as well. From the Times:
He said he had no interest in pressing for Mrs. Clinton’s prosecution over her use of a private email server or for financial acts committed by the Clinton Foundation. “I don’t want to hurt the Clintons, I really don’t,” he said.
On the issue of torture, Mr. Trump suggested he had changed his mind about the value of waterboarding after talking with James N. Mattis, a retired Marine Corps general, who headed the United States Central Command. . . . Torture, he said, is “not going to make the kind of a difference that a lot of people are thinking.” . . .
Asked by the Op-Ed columnist Thomas L. Friedman about whether he thought human activity was linked to climate change, Mr. Trump said: “I think there is some connectivity. Some, something. It depends on how much.” . . .
On climate change, Mr. Trump refused to repeat his promise to abandon the international climate accord reached last year in Paris, saying, “I’m looking at it very closely.” Despite the recent appointment to his transition team of a fierce critic of the Paris accords, Mr. Trump said that “I have an open mind to it”
This is pattern for Trump post-election. He told “60 Minutes” that parts of the border wall could be “fencing” and that he’d keep parts of Obamacare rather than scrapping it completely.
Based on these statements, there’s clearly nothing that Trump said during the campaign that you can count on.
Perhaps these statements have changed your opinion of Trump. They indicate that he might save Obamacare, carefully examine global warming, fail to reinstate torture, and leave Clinton unprosecuted. If you are Trump fan, these statements may dishearten you, while if you are an opponent, they may give you hope.
But given the complete and fundamental shifts in position, Donald Trump has proven that you can trust nothing that he says. In contrast to his assertions that he is a great negotiator, he’s demonstrated bad faith with the public — and no negotiator can succeed if they negotiate in bad faith. No matter what your political position, that ought to worry you.
The danger of bad faith in a president
Presidents must negotiate everything — or designate others to do so.
Trump is going to have to negotiate budgets and priorities with Congress. If he has no fixed position from day to day, that is impossible. It is the opposite of “tough” — you can’t wrestle Jello.
He is going to have to negotiate with the leaders of China regarding currency and Europe regarding NATO and Russia. How’s that going to work if his position changes based on whatever he last read or whoever he last spoke with?
Presidents designate negotiators. For example, the Secretary of State negotiates with other countries on behalf of President. A legislative affairs staffer handles much of the negotiation with Congress. The Press Secretary represents the president’s positions to the media. These people can succeed only if they can agree with the president on firm positions and expect that president to back them up. If the president subsequently undermines these negotiators, no one will trust them and they’ll become demoralized and ineffective, just as my opposite number became in my corporate negotiation.
Fortunately for America, we are not an autocracy. But one consequence of this is that the bad faith of Donald Trump will undermine his ability to accomplish anything in office.
Who do you think he’ll blame for that?