Saturday, March 25, 2017


This morning I've been reading a lot of inside-baseball stories about the failure of the Trump/Ryancare bill. One message that's repeated in many of the stories is that the events of the past few weeks were like an anecdote from Donald Trump's book The Art of the Deal, except that this didn't have a happy ending for Trump, because things in Washington are, in some vague way, different, or Trump's commitment to victory was different, or some combination of the two.

But it seems to me that Trump's biggest problem, apart from his staggering ignorance of the bill's nuances and health care in general, is that for all the respect he gets as a dealmaker, he has no go-to move when he can't bedazzle you or scare you. Here he is failing to dazzle:
One [moderate Republican], Rep. Leonard Lance (R-N.J.), attended meetings at the White House and praised Trump’s style, saying the president clearly “knows Jersey.” But, he added, the bill would harm his constituents who rely on Medicaid and there was nothing Trump could say to persuade him otherwise.

“He’s got this wit about him that I enjoy,” Lance said, “but I’m a ‘no’ vote.”
And then there were members of the Freedom Caucus, particularly Mark Meadows, whom Trump tried and failed to intimidate:
Freedom Caucus members were eager to hear from Trump on Tuesday when he arrived at the Capitol. But when he rose to address the GOP conference, the president made it clear there would be no further modifications, and said he expected Republicans to rally around Ryan's bill.

Then Trump made a mistake. After singling out Meadows and asking him to stand up in front of his colleagues, Trump joked that he might "come after" the Freedom Caucus boss if he didn't vote yes, and then added, with a more serious tone: "I think Mark Meadows will get on board."

It was a crucial misreading of Meadows, who has been determined to please both the White House and his conservatives colleagues on the Hill. Upon assuming the chairmanship of the Freedom Caucus earlier this year, Meadows was viewed suspiciously by some of his members who worried that the North Carolina congressman is too cozy with Trump and would hesitate to defy him. Meadows campaigned extensively with Trump last fall and struck up a relationship with White House chief strategist Steve Bannon, who communicates with him almost daily by text. Meadows knew the health care fight would be viewed as a test of his independence from Trump, and the moment the president called him out, he was boxed in.

"That was the biggest mistake the president could have made," one Freedom Caucus member told me. "Mark desperately wanted to get to yes, and Trump made it impossible for him. If he flipped after that he would look incredibly weak."
If you feel you're answerable to someone other than Trump, Trump has no idea how to win you over. The moderates are more afraid of swing voters in their districts than they are of Trump campaigning against them or recruiting primary challengers for them. The Freedom Caucusers don't want to alienate their purist fellow members, and they know that a lot of their voters assess legislation based on what they glean from talk radio, purist websites and pundits, and far-right groups like the Heritage Foundation. They're more afraid of crossing those folks than they are of crossing Trump.

Some reporters will tell you that Trump was really good at this sort of thing when he was in real estate, but this is different:
[The] president [was] in a constant state of negotiation. He remarked to friends and aides that it did not feel much different from his real estate transactions.

“It’s the same thing,” he said Wednesday in the Oval Office. “Really, it is.”

Yet the man accustomed to acting unilaterally as a Manhattan developer faced a series of new and uncomfortable challenges.
But in his real estate years he sometimes had the same problems: If he hadn't charmed you, couldn't intimidate you, and wasn't the person you felt you were answerable to, you could scuttle his deals.
Through Trump’s rise, fall and rebirth, there was one major real estate project that he tried to keep.... It was a deal of genuine magnitude and would have put him atop the New York real estate market. And he screwed it up.

The deal involved Manhattan’s West Side Yards, a sprawling, 77-acre tract abutting the Hudson River between 59th and 72nd Streets and at the time the largest privately owned undeveloped stretch of land in New York City....

Trump’s plans for the property included office and residential space; a new broadcasting headquarters for NBC; a rocket-ship-shaped skyscraper that would have been the world’s tallest building and cast shadows across the Hudson River into New Jersey; and a $700 million property tax abatement from the city as an incentive to build it. The $4.5 billion project -- which Trump called Television City -- would have been New York’s biggest development since Rockefeller Center....

With the property, financing and plans in place, a large part of what Trump needed to do to make Television City a reality was to bring together different stakeholders: locals (like the late actor Paul Newman) who wanted parks and a less imposing development, and a mayor, Ed Koch, who had his own outsize personality and who was trying to balance the city’s redevelopment with the needs of the area’s longtime residents.

Had Trump appeased these interests, he might have made the project a reality. Instead, the author of “The Art of the Deal” quickly became entangled in an epic, only-in-New-York round of public fisticuffs with Koch in the spring and summer of 1987. The brawl devolved into name-calling -- and ultimately helped doom a deal that could have had vastly different results if Trump chose different tactics.

After learning that Koch was going to turn down his request for the $700 million abatement for Television City, Trump dashed off a letter to the mayor.

“For you to be playing ‘Russian Roulette’ with perhaps the most important corporation in New York over the relatively small amounts of money involved because you and your staff are afraid that Donald Trump may actually make more than a dollar of profit, is both ludicrous and disgraceful,” he wrote to Koch.

Koch wrote back to Trump, warning him to “refrain from further attempts to influence the process through intimidation.” Koch then held a press conference, during which he released the letters and said he wasn’t going to give Trump the abatement.

Trump doubled down, holding his own press conference and calling on Koch to resign. The battle played out in a carnivalesque stream on TV and on the front pages and gossip columns of newspapers.

Koch said Trump was “squealing like a stuck pig.” Trump said Koch’s New York had become a “cesspool of corruption and incompetence.” Koch said Trump was a “piggy, piggy, piggy.”

Trump said the mayor had “no talent and only moderate intelligence” and should be impeached. “Ed Koch would do everybody a huge favor if he would get out of office and they started all over again,” he noted. “It’s bedlam in the city.”

Things quieted down for a little while, and then Koch announced that he would zone the Yards for a project about half the size of what Trump wanted for Television City. Koch also gave NBC tax breaks that persuaded it to stay put in Rockefeller Center.

Trump promised that he would eventually build Television City “with or without the current administration” in City Hall. But he never did.
Koch was a man with an ego and a gift for self-promotion equal to Trump's. He wasn't charmed by Trump or intimidated by him. Koch was willing to cut deals, but only up to a point. As The New York Times reported at the time, Koch
said he could not offer Mr. Trump a deal that was so generous that it would have antagonized all the other corporations that have remained in the city. And, the Mayor added, he could not empty the public treasury just to assuage the network and the developer.
So NBC got a tax break to stay in the city, and Trump was left to stew.

The legend notwithstanding, Trump as a developer didn't always win -- far from it. You could beat him then if you cared about your interests more than his. And you can beat him now the same way.

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