Amidst all the controversies of the Trump administration, we students of negotiations have been given a number of heretofore rare opportunities to observe and analyze actual negotiations that take place in the political world. We have many instances of seeing presidents negotiate in public, but little idea of how negotiations play out when these actors are not on stage. We have recently had the opportunity to compare the public part of a negotiation (“Mexico will pay for the wall”) with the actual negotiation that followed.
On August 4, 2017, The New York Times published the transcript of telephone conversations that took place earlier this year. The first transcript was of a conversation between President Trump and Mexican President Enrique Peña Nieto. President Trump has stated many times in public that Mexico will pay for the wall. This strong public position has a number of purposes, some of which are to “anchor” the negotiation towards an extreme end and also to intimidate an opponent. By being so public with this anchor, the President has signaled his resoluteness, since it is hard to back down from publicly-stated positions without losing face, looking very weak, and causing future extreme anchors to be ignored.
This conversation took place after President Nieto stated publicly that Mexico would not pay for the wall:
But you cannot say that to the press. The press is going to go with that, and I cannot live with that. You cannot say that to the press, because I cannot negotiate under those circumstances.
I understand the critical political position that this constitutes for your country and for you, Mr. President. Let us look for a creative way to jump over this obstacle.
President Trump appears to be using an emotional and personal appeal to President Nieto so he can save face. Saying a counterpart’s statements put him in a politically untenable positions can be effective if backed by credible real or implied threats, but if President Trump has any leverage here to encourage President Nieto to comply with his personal appeal, it is not apparent. President Trump is usually quite quick with his threats, at least in public.
Interestingly, President Nieto uses the techniques of expressing understanding of President Trump’s dilemma and suggesting that they both look for an integrative solution, which allows both to save face. At this point (eight months later) it would appear that President Trump’s efforts to intimidate President Nieto have failed.
The next interchange is between President Trump and Australian Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull. They are discussing whether to comply with a commitment former President Barack Obama made to accept up to 2,000 refugees currently confined in Australia:
Somebody told me yesterday that close to 2,000 people are coming who are really troublesome. And I am saying, boy that will make us look awfully bad. Here I am calling for a ban where I am not letting anybody in and we take 2,000 people. Really, it looks like 2,000 people that Australia does not want and I do not blame you, by the way, but the United States has become like a dumping ground.
(Turnbull then explained that the deal did not require the United States to take 2,000 people, but it was important for the United States to live up to its commitment.)
This is a big deal. I think we should respect deals.
Who made the deal. Obama?
Yes, but let me describe what it is.
(The U.S. had agreed only to consider accepting up to 1,250 refugees, Turnbull explained. But each of them would be subject to vetting and could be rejected. The people at issue were economic refugees, mainly from Iran, Pakistan and Afghanistan, he added, not criminals or terrorists.)
Why haven’t you let them out? Why have you not let them into your society?
It is not because they are bad people. It is because in order to stop people-smugglers, we have to deprive them of the product.
(Australia, by policy, Turnbull said, refuses to accept refugees who arrive by boat, because it would encourage smugglers to keep charging desperate people to bring them there.)
That is a good idea. We should do that too. You are worse than I am.
(Turnbull implored the president to abide by the agreement.)
I am asking you as a very good friend. This is a big deal. It is really, really important to us that we maintain it.
Malcolm, why is this so important? I do not understand. This is going to kill me. I am the world’s greatest person that does not want to let people into the country. [Going along with the deal] puts me in a bad position…
(Turnbull repeated that it was only 1,250 people, each of them subject to vetting.)
I will be honest with you, I hate taking these people. I guarantee you they are bad. That is why they are in prison right now. They are not going to be wonderful people who go on to work for the local milk people.
I would not be so sure about that.
Well, maybe you should let them out of prison. I am doing this because Obama made a bad deal.
But I can say to you, there is nothing more important in business or politics than a deal is a deal.
This is a stupid deal. This deal will make me look terrible.
Mr. President, I think this will make you look like a man who stands by the commitments of the United States.
O.K., this shows me to be a dope. I am not like this but if I have to do it, I will do it, but I do not like this at all. I am going to get killed on this thing.
You will not.
Yes, I will be seen as a weak and ineffective leader in my first week by these people. This is a killer.
The negotiating frames here are quite different. Again, President Trump’s appeal is personal and emotional. Prime Minister Turnbull uses a classic consistency trap (“It is important to keep commitments.”). He tries to get President Trump to acknowledge the premise that it is critical to honor a commitment no matter which administration made it. The Prime Minister’s tactic seems to work; President Trump capitulates.
This is a very small sample, but it would appear that President Trump’s public negotiating stance and his private negotiations are dramatically different. This, of course, doesn’t make him unique, but if his public stances are intended to affect the outcomes of the private interactions, these two examples suggest that this approach may not be effective.
Edward Wertheim is an associate professor of management and organizational development at the D’Amore-McKim School of Business. He teaches negotiation, organizational behavior, and mediation. Wertheim is a member of the Academy of Management, New England Association for Conflict Resolution, and the North American Case Research Association.