Mr. Trump seems to bend all of the conventional rules of negotiation. He can be both belligerent and obsequious. He was both in his talks with China.
His early talk on tariffs was so combative that Senator Ben Sasse, Republican of Nebraska, said at the time, “If he’s even half-serious, this is nuts.” Then the president suddenly became a China jobs booster, instructing his government to find a way to ease up on ZTE, a Chinese telecommunications company that the Commerce Department said had violated sanctions by selling equipment to Iran and North Korea.
“President Xi of China, and I, are working together to give massive Chinese phone company, ZTE, a way to get back into business, fast,” Mr. Trump wrote on Twitter. “Too many jobs in China lost.”
His tweet looked like a clear attempt to ingratiate himself with China before the trade talks, but it also broke Mr. Trump’s own negotiating rule from “The Art of the Deal”: “The worst thing you can possibly do in a deal is seem desperate to make it. That makes the other guy smell blood, and then you’re dead.”
Part of the problem for Mr. Trump is that it is difficult to negotiate when there is disagreement within your own team about the approach to take. White House officials would have you believe that they are singing from the same hymn sheet, but they are not. Mr. Mnuchin and Larry Kudlow, Mr. Trump’s top economic adviser, are often at loggerheads with their more hawkish colleagues Robert E. Lighthizer, the United States trade representative, and Peter Navarro, the president’s chief trade adviser. If that isn’t obvious, just look at the steady stream of anonymous quotes with each side sniping at the other over the past couple of weeks.
Maybe that’s the way Mr. Trump likes it. As I reread “The Art of the Deal,” I was struck by this line: “I never get too attached to one deal or one approach,” he wrote. “I keep a lot of balls in the air, because most deals fall out, no matter how promising they seem at first.”
That may be a practical strategy in business, but it gets more complicated when it comes to trade. Or even more high-stakes matters, like North Korea.