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The art of no deal: Trump lacking major ones in first 100 days

In this April, 26 photo, President Donald Trump speaks at the Interior Department in Washington. (AP Photo/Carolyn Kaster)
In this April, 26 photo, President Donald Trump speaks at the Interior Department in Washington. (AP Photo/Carolyn Kaster)
Published Apr. 30, 2017

WASHINGTON — As he entered the race for president, Donald Trump pitched himself as the ultimate dealmaker.

"Our country needs a truly great leader, and we need a truly great leader now," he said. "We need a leader that wrote The Art of the Deal."

During the campaign, Trump promised to use business prowess to cut through the Washington morass and quickly deliver on trade, taxes and health care. There would be a "great, great wall," paid for by Mexico.

But 100 days into the job, Trump has not fully lived up to a central tenet of his 1987 bestseller: deliver the goods.

He got a conservative justice installed on the Supreme Court, launched a well-received strike on Syria and has used executive orders to roll back some of President Barack Obama's regulations. He put the Keystone XL pipeline into action.

But those successes, tempered by court action holding up his controversial travel ban, did not require dealmaking chops or much navigating of Congress.

Trump has not scored a major legislative victory. The man dubbed "the closer" has struggled to work with a Republican majority and exhibited a haphazard negotiating style that has clashed with the realities of the job. He's shown little command of the issues.

"Nobody knew health care could be so complicated," Trump said in February before an attempt at repealing and replacing the Affordable Care Act collapsed.

More recently, Trump threatened to upend budget talks with a demand that the border wall be funded, only to quickly retreat.

Eager to demonstrate progress on his agenda, despite casting the 100-day benchmark as "ridiculous," Trump startled GOP leaders with a sweeping tax proposal Wednesday that lacked many details. The same day, White House officials floated the idea that Trump could withdraw from the North American Free Trade Agreement. Hours later, Trump backtracked and said he would look to renegotiate, an approach he had promised would begin on the first day in office.

"He's failed to demonstrate an ability to make deals," said former Republican U.S. Rep. David Jolly of Pinellas County. "Every president has said he was going to change Washington. It was one of Barack Obama's big promises and one of his big laments.

"But Trump articulated very clear promises of policy results. So it's fair to hold him accountable."

Presidents scoff at the 100-day measure as a fixation of the news media, but they also know their power is greatest right after the election. Trump is hampered by being the most unpopular president in modern times, with an approval rating in the low 40s.

"I understand the 100 days are a little early, but he's dealing with a very fractured Republican conference and polarized parties," said Sarah Binder, a political science professor at George Washington University. "The combination of those two might just put transactional politics out of reach."

Noting that it won't be long before lawmakers are focused on re-election and thus reluctant to take votes on big items, Binder added, "He's running out of time."

The bleak polling belies Trump's strength among core supporters. A recent Washington Post/ABC News survey showed only 2 percent of Americans who supported Trump regret doing so. Republican pollster David Winston, who was not part of the survey, said Trump loyalists will judge him on two main points: jobs and wages. "But he also has real targets to hit."

"There was an expectation that Trump as a businessman would be able to make deals," said Alex Conant, a Republican strategist and former aide to Sen. Marco Rubio of Florida. "But a huge part of it was, 'This guy's a breath of fresh air in a city that stinks.' I think that's why his supporters are willing to give him time to turn things around."

Part of the challenge for Trump, the first president without prior government or military experience, is that he arrived in Washington lacking deep relationships with Congress.

"Before you make a deal you need to get to know your negotiating partners. Trump's been doing a good job of that," Conant said.

The president works the phones and regularly invites members of Congress to the White House. Vice President Mike Pence often has lunch with GOP senators on Tuesdays.

Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., had dinner with Trump on Monday night. At times sharply critical of the candidate-turned-president, McCain has softened his view as Trump has moved to increase military spending and acted assertively with Syria.

"If you show a position of strength, then you can make deals," McCain said, nodding to Trump's recent meeting at Mar-a-Lago with Chinese President Xi Jinping, the hope being an agreement to contain North Korea and address currency and trade issues.

"We'll see what happens now that health care is being resurrected and on taxes they just fired the opening salvo," McCain said.

Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., was also at the Monday dinner and, like McCain, is patient for the dealmaker-in-chief to emerge. He points to Trump's plan to pump a trillion dollars into the nation's infrastructure. "That's the one to watch for. I think he's getting his footing."

Sen. Chris Coons, a moderate Democrat from Delaware, said Trump needs to reach out more to both parties and set priorities. While Trump has talked up infrastructure, which Democrats are eager to work on, he's not moved beyond a broad outline. Meanwhile, Trump has created a string of distractions, including accusing his predecessor of bugging Trump Tower.

"What's the top priority this week? It's not clear to me," Coons said Tuesday.

"His casual comment, 'Who knew health care reform was so hard' was greeted by eye rolls and chuckles by a lot of the Capitol," Coons said. "This is often the case with folks who have been successful in business. They struggle to understand why legislating is so complicated and so difficult. It requires compromise between folks who represent states with very different interests and priorities and political cultures."

Last month's failed attempt at replacing Obamacare illustrated Trump's struggles.

He deferred to House Speaker Paul Ryan to take the reins on crafting the initial proposal and showed little knowledge of the details in talks with lawmakers, some of whom left meetings dismayed. It seemed to them that Trump just wanted any deal rather than a specific outcome.

Unable to gain traction, Trump cut off negotiations and demanded a vote, a hardball tactic taken from his business days. He tried bullying via tweet, accusing conservative Freedom Caucus members of working with Democrats to save Obama's signature policy achievement.

"If there is one group that is not going to respond well to an ultimatum, it's the Freedom Caucus," said Alex Patton, a Florida-based Republican consultant. "I would like to say that with total control of the government that I'm shocked they are not getting things done. Unfortunately, I'm not. This is a dysfunctional group."

An array of observers say Trump needs to better understand the dynamics within the Republican caucus and seek to bridge the divide while also finding common ground with Democrats. He has to move beyond talking points and get into specifics, which will strengthen his negotiating hand. He could fill hundreds of vacancies in the administration and settle infighting.

"The first 100 days of the Trump presidency shouldn't bring comfort to either party: The Trump legacy will be decided by what happens after this arbitrary milestone," Republican strategist Karl Rove wrote in the Wall Street Journal. "The president would be wise to recalibrate, reset and make changes in how he operates before today's lowly ratings lock in place."

Despite White House attempts to spin the first 100 days as an unqualified success, Trump has found time for reflection.

"This is thousands of times bigger, the United States, than the biggest company in the world," he said in an Oval Office interview with the Associated Press. "And every agency is, like, bigger than any company. So you know, I really just see the bigness of it all, but also the responsibility."

In an interview with Reuters, he said, "This is more work than in my previous life. I thought it would be easier."

Now he faces pressure to come through. "If you don't deliver the goods," he wrote in The Art of the Deal, "people will eventually catch on."

Contact Alex Leary at aleary@tampabay.com. Follow @learyreports.

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