2018 U.S. Midterm Elections

Deflecting and Deal-Making: Trump’s Plan if Republicans Lose the House

In the boardroom and in the White House, the U.S. president has followed the same script.

By Michael Hirsh, a senior correspondent and deputy news editor at Foreign Policy.
President Donald Trump speaks during a campaign rally in Estero, Florida, on Oct. 31. (Joe Raedle/Getty Images)
President Donald Trump speaks during a campaign rally in Estero, Florida, on Oct. 31. (Joe Raedle/Getty Images)

Democrats are hoping that if they win the House of Representatives in U.S. congressional elections on Nov. 6, they’ll be able to change the conversation in Washington by investigating everything from President Donald Trump’s tax returns to his business interests in Russia.

But Trump, who fended off investigations and bad publicity for decades as a New York real estate mogul, has a well-honed strategy for shaping the conversation in a way that serves him: fight back with furious countercharges, deflect attention from the criticism by cutting some glitzy new deal, and then hype it to the hilt.

It doesn’t matter if it’s a new Atlantic City casino or a new North American trade pact.

Indeed, if you want a good idea of what to expect from Trump after Nov. 6, just look at the way he has behaved in the weeks before the midterm elections. As he faced negative publicity over the attempted pipe bomb attacks and the deadly shooting at a Pittsburgh synagogue—both crimes allegedly perpetrated by right-wing extremists—he grew only more frenzied in his efforts to change the subject on an almost daily basis.

Just as he did in the final days of the 2016 presidential election, Trump threw out one extreme proposal after another to divert the media’s attention and reignite the passions of his base.

First, Trump pitched a “middle-class tax cut” that he must have known couldn’t happen, and then he ordered active-duty military to the border to avert an “invasion” of mostly immigrant women and children (though the so-called caravan was nearly 1,000 miles away). Finally, Trump announced he would single-handedly change the U.S. Constitution, reinterpreting the 14th Amendment through executive order to prevent some immigrant babies from becoming U.S. citizens.

And Trump did change the conversation—so much so that the Washington media could barely keep up, said Gwenda Blair, the author of The Trumps: Three Generations of Builders and a President, who noted that it was the same with the New York media during Trump’s real estate days.

“He isn’t an atom different from what he was then. He still has a really shrewd grasp of how to gain in the media,” said Blair, who teaches at Columbia University’s Journalism School.

“And he got the headlines. Look at him now. He’s already gone on from birthright citizenship to something else while we in the media are all saying, ‘Wait a minute, here’s all these constitutional scholars saying you can’t do that.’”

Trump has been doing this sort of thing for more than 40 years, from the time he made his mark in business. If Democrats win the House (and possibly the Senate, though that’s considered a long shot) on Tuesday, then, in the next two years, “he’s going to look for the most extreme deals he can imagine,” said Michael D’Antonio, the author of The Truth About Trump.

“This 14th Amendment thing is a prelude to that,” he said. “Human beings and events, even tragic events, are regarded by him as part of the deal-making process.”

It is a mode of behavior that started with Trump’s first big business deal. In the late 1970s, as a newbie mogul armed with a $400 million property tax abatement obtained by his dad, Trump took the frame of the dingy old Commodore Hotel in midtown Manhattan and turned it into the glittering Grand Hyatt. The job wasn’t a rebuild; it was a makeover. Rather than tear down the Commodore’s brick facade, Trump’s architects layered it with a skin of bronze-colored glass to give the place the glitzy look that would become the Trump signature. New York commentators raved over the way he’d helped to revive a deficit-ridden city on the rocks.

Forty-odd years later, longtime Trump observers say, he’s trying to do to the world order what he did to the Commodore Hotel and other big properties. Deal by deal, he’s trying to build a new Trump-branded international system on the frame of the old—and then driving the conversation over whether this is still mostly the old world we knew or a new sort of Trump-crafted reality.

Consider Trump’s retooling of the North American Free Trade Agreement, which was announced in late September. Trump took the basic structure of the old deal, added a few new provisions on auto manufacturing, and then proceeded to call it, falsely, “the biggest trade deal in the United States’ history.”

As he did in talking up minor revisions to a free trade agreement with South Korea, Trump presented the U.S.-Mexico-Canada Agreement, known as USMCA, as a “brand new deal,” though it retains most of the trade conditions in the original pact. “From a branding and a political perspective, he has put a new wrapper on it and a new bow,” Bruce Heyman, a former U.S. ambassador to Canada, told USA Today.

And while the media were debating just how new USMCA really was (Trump gloated that the name had a “good ring to it”), the president simply moved on.

In the aftermath of the midterms, his biographers say, Trump will only make redoubled efforts at dominating the conversation with big new deals.

Consider Trump’s harsh commentary about the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP), the big trade deal negotiated by the United States and 11 other nations. “I would do TPP if we made a much better deal than we had. We had a horrible deal,” he told CNBC. He quickly pulled out, seeking a Trump deal. Even though the TPP will go into force at the end of the year, without the United States, Trump has hinted that he wants to reopen negotiations.

In fact, a large part of USMCA is similar to language in the TPP that addresses environmental rules, digital and intellectual property, patent protections, employment standards, and currency manipulation. In other words, the framework of a previous deal has been layered with a new skin.

To Trump, the key point is that it was his deal, not anyone else’s—especially not Barack Obama’s—analysts say.

Trump has indicated that he sees the Iran threat in much the same way. This spring, he pulled out of the painstakingly negotiated 2015 Iran nuclear pact, calling it “the worst deal ever.” But ever since, Trump has been hinting broadly that he wants to fashion his own accord with Tehran.

In July, he said he would meet Iran’s leaders “anytime they want” and without preconditions. And in September, on the same day that he condemned the Iranian regime before the world as the authors of “chaos, death, and disruption,” he tweeted that he was “sure” that Iranian President Hassan Rouhani was “an absolutely lovely man!”

Indeed, Trump has repeatedly indicated that his harsh treatment of both China and Iran is mainly a way of driving them to the bargaining table, much as he did with North Korea.

“They all wanna make a deal,” he told New York magazine’s Olivia Nuzzi in a bizarre, impromptu chat in October. “China wants to make a deal — I said, you’re not ready yet. But they wanna make a deal, and at some point we might. Iran wants to make a deal.”

There is another important dimension to Trump’ s effectiveness in controlling the conversation: the counterattack that outdoes anything his adversaries can throw at him. This, too, has been his strategy going back to Trump’s earliest days in the public eye.

In late 1973, the U.S. Justice Department filed a suit charging Trump’s company, which owned thousands of apartment units in the city, with discriminating against potential black tenants. Trump’s response was to announce a $100 million damage suit against the Justice Department on the grounds that “irresponsible and baseless” charges had been made against his company.

“We never have discriminated, and we never would,” Trump was quoted in the New York Times as saying.

Trump didn’t win the suit and eventually had to open the apartment rentals to minorities under a consent decree—but “he got the headline. He got some days of spin,” Blair said. “He declared victory and said he hadn’t been found guilty.” And after the Grand Hyatt opened in 1980, he was the city’s hero.

It was little different this week, when, after being accused of inciting right-wing violence, Trump renewed his attacks on the media as “the true Enemy of the People.” The “great anger in our Country,” he tweeted on Monday, is “caused in part by inaccurate, and even fraudulent, reporting of the news.”

“The whole name of the game is to keep promising and threatening in super-rapid succession, always catching the other person off guard,” Blair said.

The rhetoric would likely get more aggressive if Trump faces an oppositional Congress.

“I think he’ll become more lawless and more florid,” D’Antonio said. He compares Trump’s behavior now in the face of the threat from special counsel Robert Mueller—whom the president has relentlessly attacked—to the time when Trump feared in the late 1980s and early 1990s that new Native-American casinos in the Catskills might threaten his businesses in Atlantic City (which they did). To discredit the new casinos, D’Antonio said, “he and Roger Stone took out ads and broke campaign laws to the tune of hundreds of thousands of dollars. And they were fined. But he didn’t care.”

During the presidential campaign, one of Trump’s favorite locutions was: “If it weren’t for me, you wouldn’t even be talking about [fill in the blank].” Or, as his daughter Ivanka put it to Breitbart in 2016: “From Day One my father set the agenda for what the whole party is talking about.”

He’s still doing it, and he’ll do it after Nov. 6. Only now it’s what the whole world is talking about.

Michael Hirsh is a senior correspondent and deputy news editor at Foreign Policy. Twitter: @michaelphirsh