As a candidate, Donald Trump sold himself as a deal maker. As president, he’s governing more as a hostage taker.
Across an array of domestic and foreign challenges, Trump’s go-to move has become to create what amounts to a political hostage situation. He’s either terminating, or threatening to terminate, a series of domestic and international policies adopted by earlier administrations — and insisting that others grant him concessions to change his mind.
Over just the past week, Trump has executed this maneuver three separate times. Last Wednesday, with Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau sitting beside him, Trump reaffirmed his willingness to walk away from the North American Free Trade Agreement that has linked the US, Mexico and Canada since 1994.
Then on Friday came a double-header. In a belligerent speech, Trump declared that without significant changes he would abandon the international nuclear deal with Iran. On the same day, Trump officially ended the “cost-sharing reduction” payments that help limit health costs for low-income consumers under the Affordable Care Act and then tweeted: “Dems should call me to fix!”
This followed Trump’s earlier announcement that he will end by early next year former President Barack Obama’s “deferred action” program that protects from deportation young undocumented immigrants brought to the country illegally by their parents.
Internationally, Trump has tried the same move by threatening to spike the US free trade agreement with South Korea unless it accepts major revisions. He’s also ended American participation in the Trans-Pacific Partnership, a pan-Asian free trade deal Obama negotiated, and the global Paris climate accord. In each instance, he’s suggested he’s open to devising alternatives (sometimes more half-heartedly than in the others.)
“You’re terminated,” is quickly becoming the presidential equivalent of his reality show catchphrase: “You’re fired.”
Trump’s expectation is that his threats will strengthen his leverage over whoever he’s negotiating against — whether Democrats in Congress, foreign governments, or both. But the early experience suggests that Trump’s actions more often may have the opposite effects: to isolate him, divide his allies, and harden opposition to his proposals.
Trump’s threats to undo major agreements have unquestionably heightened anxiety and created disruption for those he’s trying to pressure.
Just the possibility that Trump would end the cost-sharing payments, which reimburse insurance companies for limiting out-of-pocket health care costs for low income consumers, already forced insurers to preemptively raise premiums this year, adding more pressure on Obamacare markets. His move to actually stop the payments could make coverage unaffordable for many more of the uninsured and/or prompt insurance companies to flee more states under the ACA.
Trump’s threat to end Obama’s protections for the roughly 800,000 young people in the “deferred action” program has left them uncertain how long their legal protection will continue — making it far more difficult for them, or others who work with them like universities, to plan for the future.
Merely the threat that the US will abandon the Iran agreement and restore sanctions casts a shadow over that nation’s efforts to revive foreign investment, one of the deal’s principal selling points there. And Trump’s NAFTA warnings have hurt the Mexican stock market and raised similar uncertainties for companies contemplating investments in Canada or Mexico.