The bad faith lesson of Donald Trump at the New York Times

Photo: Andrew Harnik/AP

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?

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  1. Your take on Trump’s bad faith reflects my own thoughts. I’m not relieved that Trump appears to have softened so many of his outlandish campaign promises. It actually makes me worry even more because I have no idea what he is really thinking or where he really stands on anything. The fact that he can so easily change his position on anything tells me that he makes it up as he goes. He is willing to say or do anything to suit the moment. Is he really just folding like a lawn chair when someone like the Times confronts him, or is he saying what he thinks needs to be said to suit the moment?

    1. Many supporters seemed to have already embraced this pattern of sowing confusion during the campaign. When asked about Trump’s “rhetoric” (things he said), typically they responded, “He didn’t really mean that.” And often they went on to say they admired Trump for “telling it like it is” and speaking his mind. Can’t have it both ways…

  2. I’ve noted that as well — even during his campaign he would change positions within a sentence. He will keep everyone (even many of those on his staff) off balance. I’ve experienced this sort of person in my own life. They have an ability to size people up for their strengths and weaknesses, and then play them like puppets, pulling either string when it suits their purposes.

    This guy does it on a grand scale — with groups. The joy for him is in playing people more than anything (he becomes less powerful over them when they disengage).

    People fear them and because they sow mistrust generally, it’s difficult to organize against them. Ultimately, the best case is to work around them at a distance rather than directly confronting, not allow their antics to take up your mindspace, and assume that all their decisions have only one rule: self-benefit. Social norms aren’t part of the equation and never will be. Just self. Drama works in their favor, so expect lots of drama — it keeps them in the focus. Treat them like clickbait, and don’t bite — watch from a distance. To play, you will pay.

  3. Although I suspect that Trump’s supporters will, confusing though this behavior is to me, shout with glee that he is “just speaking his mind” when he does all these flip-flops, instead of getting irate at being duped, I agree with you. If everything he thinks is built on shifting sand, and he’s willing to sell out everything he’s said to date, it’s not possible to know what to expect from him. That, as you said, makes him a demagogue and an impostor, not a shrewd negotiator. There can be no negotiation with a demagogue, as that person’s position is built on the “religion of ideology,” and as such, cannot change. Unless, of course, the person doesn’t really believe the positions he espouses in his demagogue’s finery. Then he’s an impostor, and can change his coat whenever he sees fit. Of course, that person is also a liar. Liars, by their very nature, can’t be trusted. Negotiations with a liar are best avoided, as no one who negotiates with a liar wins in the end.

  4. I’m no Trump supporter, never voted for him never will, but I do wonder if you apply the same reasoning for “bad faith” on Democrats as you do on Trump. Have you taken Obama to task on his promise to shut down the prison at Guantanamo Bay, for example? And, by the way, Mrs. Clinton has flip flopped on each and every one of the issues that Trump has flip flopped on, if you’re not so unbiased to do a bit of research on it you’d know that to be the case.

    1. Believe me, I thought about that. Politicians flip-flop. Hillary Clinton was for TPP, then against it. Mitt Romney was pro-choice, then pro-life. The point here is not that Trump flip-flopped. It is that he flip-flopped, instantly, on the most fundamental issues that he campaigned on. Not the same as Obama on Gitmo, who has never flip-flopped, but was unable to get the job of closing the thing down.

      Regarding your suggestion that Clinton changed her mind on these things — I don’t believe she was ever for torture, denied global warming, or against Obamacare. Her position on these things is consistent.

      She has definitely changed her position on important issues, such as gay marriage. But that took place over decades. Trump switched fundamental positions instantly, between campaigning and taking office. That’s a different order of magnitude of bad faith from these other politicians.

  5. I have been no supporter of Trump during the campaign. And words matter. But would it not be best to embrace the apparent moderation of his positions. The slogan “Make America Great Again” is entirely consistent with past political campaigns – benign, everyone can embrace, words to rally the populace. If you are looking for thinkers and over-analysis of issues democracy can be very frustrating. I , for one, am hopeful that he will be relative Milquetoast with regard to radical right programs. Unlike Bush the younger he WILL be making the decisions despite his somewhat troublesome appointments.

    1. You’ve been sucked in.

      Why should we believe these new positions any more than the old ones he took? If he can change in a direction you like, he can change back in an instant.

      Real presidents have beliefs and only change them after careful thought. This one appears to have no beliefs and no capacity for careful thought. He’s proven that. He’ll have to prove otherwise before I, or anyone else, will trust him.