American media all came to the same conclusion regarding President Donald Trump’s performance at the G7 meeting of international leaders in Biarritz, France, last weekend: he sent mixed messages. Almost every major news outlet in the U.S. ran some version of that phrase in their headline.
The AP cut straight to the chase: “President Donald Trump sent mixed messages.”
“Mixed signals, reversals cloud second day of G-7 summit,” a Washington Post headline declared.
“Trump sends mixed signals on China during G7 summit,” the New York Times stated.
“‘Start here’: Trump’s mixed messages on China trade war and escalation of violence in Hong Kong protests,” an ABC headline read.
“Trump delivers mixed messages on U.S.-China trade talks,” a Yahoo headline pronounced.
“Amid global turmoil, mixed messages,” proclaimed NPR, adding that while Trump said Monday that “his door might be open for meetings with Iran’s president and China’s leader…it isn’t clear what if any action may come next.”
But were the comments Trump made really “head-snapping,” as the AP suggests? Or are they par for the course in an administration that has made mixed signals on foreign policy its standard operating procedure, aided in part by war hawk John Bolton acting as Trump’s “bad cop” foil? Is it possible that the author of The Art of the Deal is intentionally making nebulous statements on Iran and China as a negotiation tactic?
Let’s take a look at what Trump said.
The media’s overwrought reaction began Sunday morning, when Trump was asked by a reporter if he had second thoughts about ratcheting up tariffs. He replied: “Yeah, sure, why not? Might as well. Might as well. I have second thoughts about everything.”
In what the press dubbed a “reversal,” White House press secretary Stephanie Grisham later that day clarified that Trump’s answer was “greatly misinterpreted” and that he actually “regrets not raising the tariffs higher.”
Trump’s comments on trade with China also drew the media’s ire. Trump told reporters that “China called” and said “let’s get back to the table.” He later added that there were “many calls…many high level calls” with Chinese officials.
As for U.S. policy on Iran, Trump said Monday that he’d consider meeting with the Iranian president if a deal could be reached on its nuclear program.
“If the circumstances were correct or right, I would certainly agree to that,” Trump said.
“What isn’t clear is what, precisely…might [be] require[d] and whether Trump or the American side are willing to exert themselves to make either conference happen,” groused NPR.
Yet could not all this seemingly confused signaling be purposeful? In 2016, Trump said, “If I win, I don’t want to broadcast to the enemy exactly what my plan is.”
According to The Art of the Deal, the key to Trump’s success is that he keeps his options open, does not commit to any one plan, and maintains alternatives in order to keep partners and opponents alike guessing. In that book, Trump continually reiterates that, regardless of how much he might want a deal, he always remains flexible because “on the other hand, I don’t want to rule out anything.”
And note an interesting exchange that Trump had with a reporter at the press conference in Biarritz. Michael Shear interrupted the president to ask about the “back-and-forth and the changing statements from yourself so that…”
“Sorry,” said Trump, with his arms outstretched. “It’s the way I negotiate.”
“Is that a strategy?” replied the reporter. “Is it a strategy to call President Xi an enemy one day, and then say relations are very good the next day? …It’s gone back and forth several times.”
“It’s the way I negotiate,” the president replied with a shrug. “It’s done very well for me over the years, and it’s doing even better for the country.”
This exchange is not mentioned in the dozens of articles on Trump’s “mixed messages.”
In “The Real Trump Deal: An Eye-Opening Look at How He Really Negotiates,” Martin Latz analyzes Trump’s negotiation style. He concludes that as a businessman, “Trump is an aggressive, persistent, win-lose negotiator who is good at setting high goals, targeting others’ motivations to gain leverage, manipulating perceptions, and anchoring the bargaining range at his end. He is also impulsive, ill-prepared, unethical, and prone to exaggerations, bluffs, and bullying.”
For Trump, “mixed messages” has been a practiced tactic, refined over decades as a real estate developer. His changing rhetoric has consistently been both functional and strategic. So why would he conform to diplomatic norms now that he’s president? After all, as he wrote, “you’re generally better off sticking with what you know.”
Barbara Boland is The American Conservative’s foreign policy and national security reporter. Follow her on Twitter @BBatDC.