WASHINGTON — President Donald Trump fashioned himself to Americans as a master negotiator who would surround himself with the best people and bring his "art of the deal" to Washington.
But the breakdown in coronavirus relief talks is just the latest in a series of failures to strike bipartisan accords. Not only is the president detached from the nitty-gritty of policy, he has shown a knack for delegating the task of negotiation to hard-liners with a limited grasp of how Democrats think, aides in both parties bemoan.
On issues ranging from COVID-19 assistance to health care to overhauling immigration, Trump has failed to find common ground with Congress that could produce big, sweeping compromise legislation.
Trump reliably blames Democrats, arguing the other side isn’t playing fair. Some of his critics doubt the breakdown is unintended as Trump again pursues executive actions to bolster his image as the sole person able to enact change in a broken “swamp.”
But Democrats and some Republicans on Capitol Hill point to Trump’s choices of negotiators — advisers who represent the most conservative wing of his administration — as part of the problem.
A senior Senate Republican aide, who spoke on condition of anonymity to speak candidly, said the dearth of good negotiators around Trump is "indicative of the fact that, with a few exceptions, he is dealing with C-list talent in his administration."
"So it is what it is," the aide lamented.
This time, the consequences of stalemate could be politically devastating. Trump’s failure to close a deal is unlikely to go unnoticed on Nov. 3 as the economy remains crippled due to a pandemic that most voters say is a product of the president’s mishandling.
‘Find a reasonable partner'
With only two days until a self-imposed deadline to strike a deal on coronavirus aid, a meeting last Wednesday between Trump’s representatives and Democrats House Speaker Nancy Pelosi and Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer hit a snag before they began, according to two sources familiar with the meeting.
Pelosi, who hosted the talks in her office, forbade the negotiators from bringing their cellphones into the room so no one could record the discussions.
White House chief of staff Mark Meadows refused. He was waiting on a call from Trump, one source said, confirming an incident first reported by The Washington Post. A contentious back-and-forth with Pelosi ensued.
The other White House negotiator, Treasury Secretary Steve Mnuchin, tried to play peacekeeper, stationing a staffer to hold the phone outside, who came and interrupted Meadows when the call came, the source said.
Meadows isn’t the only one who has struggled to secure deals with congressional Democrats. Trump's roster of negotiators and counselors has included his predecessor Mick Mulvaney, two founding members of the ultraconservative House Freedom Caucus; and senior adviser Stephen Miller, an outspoken restrictionist.
Matt House, a Democratic consultant and former communications director to Schumer, said Trump keeps "sending in emissaries that make it all but impossible for Democrats to find a reasonable partner."
"For all of his talk as the ultimate dealmaker, he remains tied to the most conservative forces in the party," House said. "That's why he sends Freedom Caucus members to negotiate spending bills, and Stephen Miller in to blow up immigration deals."
Meadows is a former congressman known on Capitol Hill for objecting to bipartisan deals in pursuit of more conservative policy. Mnuchin, however, is seen by Democrats as a viable partner and an exception to the president's more ideological emissaries.
House, who maintains close relationships on Capitol Hill, called Mnuchin a "bright spot" in the talks over the $2.2 trillion CARES Act in March but said he is being "reined in by the inclusion of Mark Meadows this time around."
“Empowering Meadows dooms any chance of a deal. He doesn’t know how to reach one, or even want to,” one House Democratic lawmaker vented. “I mean, we agreed to 4 major packages and passed them with huge bipartisan support. The difference now? He wasn’t there f-----g it up.”
Mulvaney led the government funding talks that resulted in a 35 day government shutdown in 2018, which stemmed from Trump's demand for border wall money. Months later, leaders of both parties worked to sideline Mulvaney to prevent a repeat.
Last year, Mulvaney publicly cast doubt on striking a deal on infrastructure funding after Trump agreed with Democrats to negotiate a $2 trillion package. The former White House aide drew a rebuke from the president for undercutting his efforts.
Earlier in 2018, Trump relied on Miller, a passionate opponent of immigration, to craft administration policy that scuttled a bipartisan deal to legalize young "Dreamers" and grant $25 billion to build his border wall.
Brendan Buck, who was a counselor to former House Speaker Paul Ryan, said the problem is partly about political incentive and partly about a lack of direction from the top.
"You don’t necessarily need someone close to Democrats to effectively negotiate," he said. "What you need are clear goals and principles and a sense of what’s doable, but the president doesn’t typically have those."
'Deals are my art form'
Core to Trump’s first campaign pitch was the idea that voters were getting him — the only one capable of enacting change in in Washington — and his skills, which means staying on the sidelines of negotiations has left his team to sustain his deal-making brand.
And now his re-election could be dependent on it, prompting questions about why the president has reversed course while he watches his poll numbers sink. Instead, Trump signed a handful of executive orders that he says will achieve the same goals, but are likely to face legal and logistical challenges.
Trump insists that neither he nor his team is the problem. White House trade adviser Peter Navarro accused Democrats of sabotaging the coronavirus aid talks.
"Democrats would prefer to see the economy go into the tank for another 90 days because that harms the president," Navarro said on NBC's "Meet the Press."
But the struggle to reach big agreements spans issues from health care to infrastructure to immigration and challenges the personal brand of a president who once said, "Deals are my art form.”
“Other people paint beautifully or write poetry,” Trump said in 2014. “I like making deals, preferably big deals. That's how I get my kicks."
Trump's biggest legislative achievement was the 2017 tax law, which passed with only Republican votes. He has signed narrower deals like deregulating small and mid-size banks and a set of criminal justice changes, both of which enjoyed broad support in Congress.
Anthony Scaramucci, who briefly served as Trump's communications director, said Trump "has let his personal hatred for Speaker Pelosi interfere with his ability to get a deal done."
"He also hates conflict so the notion that he would have to be in those negotiations he finds distasteful," Scaramucci, who now supports Democrat Joe Biden in the 2020 election, said in an email. "Result of which very little has gotten done."