Whether they love him or hate him, one thing negotiation analysts and practitioners should be able to agree on is that outgoing U.S. president Donald Trump has provided fascinating negotiations to examine and learn from over the past four years. His dealmaking both at home and abroad has been marked by impulsive, sometimes head- scratching decisions; volatility; and a win-at-all-costs mentality. Moments of collaboration and compromise have been more surprising than the continual stream of threats and insults. Two of his last negotiations as president, triggered by the ongoing Covid-19 pandemic, were classic Trump.
To negotiate or not negotiate?
Near the beginning of the pandemic, Trump focused his frustration over the spread of the virus on an unlikely target: the World Health Organization (WHO), the United Nations agency aimed at promoting world health. Accusing the WHO of failing to hold China accountable for its inadequate response to the initial outbreak of the virus in Wuhan, Trump repeatedly threatened to withdraw the United States from the organization.
Within the White House, opinions diverged about whether to follow through on the threat and walk away—an approach favored by Chief of Staff Mark Meadows—or attempt to negotiate changes to WHO’s global treaty, according to the New York Times.
Trump focused his frustration over the spread of the virus on an unlikely target: the World Health Organization, the United Nations agency aimed at promoting world health.
Those favoring negotiation, including Andrew Bremberg, the U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, and Health Secretary Alex Azar II, at first appeared to win the day. Trump released a letter on Twitter that contained an ultimatum: The United States would withdraw from the WHO if it did not “commit to major substantive improvements within the next 30 days.”
Those improvements had yet to be determined. The White House, the State Department, the Department of Health and Human Services, and European allies similarly frustrated by the WHO’s approach to China all weighed in on what to ask of the WHO.
Blowing it all up
In late May, Bremberg traveled to WHO headquarters in Geneva and presented a list of seven demands from Trump to WHO director general Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus. Diplomats and health officials told the Times that the list included “reasonable requests that might have been easily negotiated through normal channels,” such as a call for an investigation of the WHO’s handling of the Covid-19 outbreak in China, alongside “politically sensitive, if not inappropriate demands.”
One item asked Tedros to agree that travel restrictions the U.S. government and others had imposed during the pandemic had been appropriate. Tedros reportedly viewed it as a demand that he apologize to Trump in the midst of his presidential campaign—a nonstarter for the WHO director. But Tedros hardly had time to contemplate the list before Trump “blew it all up,” according to the Times: Hours after Bremberg delivered the list, without consulting his advisers or diplomats, the president announced outside the White House that he was withdrawing the United States from the WHO.
Trump’s announcement seemed to be intended to lure Tedros to the bargaining table. If so, the gambit was “an enormous backfire, and it was bound to be,” Georgetown University law professor and WHO adviser Lawrence Gostin told the Times.
Tedros refused to engage in negotiations. Calling Trump’s bluff, he allowed the United States to move forward with its withdrawal from the agency it had helped to create—a decision that incoming president Joe Biden has promised to reverse.
Between a rock and a hard place
In the run-up to the 2020 U.S. presidential election, U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) chief Dr. Stephen M. Hahn faced a dilemma. Trump; his son-in-law and adviser, Jared Kushner; and his chief of staff, Mark Meadows, were pressuring Hahn to ensure that one or more Covid-19 vaccines would be widely available before the election, the Times reports. Trump had been publicly accusing the FDA of slow-walking vaccine approval to harm his reelection odds. But Hahn wanted to ensure that vaccines passed rigorous reviews to ensure their safety and win public confidence. A September 2020 Pew Research Center study showed that 49% of Americans were unwilling to be vaccinated against the coronavirus. Rushing vaccines to market could further erode public trust.
Meanwhile, pharmaceutical firms complained to the FDA that its guidelines for winning emergency authorization for vaccines were too vague. A team of FDA experts drafted more specific guidelines, including a requirement that vaccine developers provide two months of follow-up data on their vaccines’ safety and efficacy. Hahn was eager to release the rules, which several leading vaccine manufacturers supported. The White House, however, had to sign off on them. Meadows reportedly told Hahn to drop the plan, saying it was unnecessary and would delay vaccine approval.
Hahn had already been burned by acquiescing to the president’s wishes. In March, under pressure from Trump, the FDA authorized the malaria drug hydroxychloroquine to treat the coronavirus, despite lack of scientific evidence of its effectiveness, only to reverse its decision when the drug was linked to serious side effects in Covid-19 patients. And scientists had panned Hahn for exaggerating the benefits of plasma in treating the virus at a press conference with Trump. Seeking to repair the FDA’s reputation and his own, Hahn had all White House calls routed directly to him to create a “cocoon” around the agency, according to the Times.
Hiding in plain sight
After the FDA submitted the new vaccine guidelines to him, Trump attacked them in a news briefing. Fearing the administration would bury the guidelines, FDA scientists hatched a work-around, as the Times details. An outside group of vaccine experts was planning to meet with the FDA on October 23. Why not slip the guidelines into their briefing materials?
Before burying a condensed version of the guidelines in an appendix, the scientists took several steps to camouflage them from the White House. They framed the guidelines as a summary of previously issued advice rather than new guidance. They also changed the title of the document and reordered some paragraphs. Meanwhile, the agency’s top vaccine regulator, Dr. Peter Marks, downplayed the significance of the recommendations by calling them “aspirational.”
On October 6, the FDA posted the briefing materials online an hour after informing the White House, according to the Times. But, as it turned out, the cloak-and-dagger techniques weren’t necessary: The Trump administration, likely under pressure from vaccine developers, surprised the FDA by abruptly approving the guidelines, which then were posted on the FDA’s website. Agency scientists celebrated the news on video calls, the Times reports.
Last lessons from Trump
What can we take away from these negotiation sagas?
- Impulsivity is not a negotiating strategy. Trump’s undermining of his team’s negotiating strategy with the WHO made his administration look confused and disorganized. Get your negotiating team on the same page— and make sure you stay there.
- Threaten only as a last resort. As was the case in his dealings with the WHO, Trump’s go-to negotiating strategy, the threat, has usually backfired, with counterparts calling his bluff, ignoring him, or escalating hostilities. It’s Negotiation 101: Threats should be considered only when all else has failed.
- Don’t underestimate weaker parties. Trump’s attempts to override the opinions of FDA scientists so antagonized them that they became willing to work around him, even resorting to subterfuge. Powerful parties who underestimate underlings and other seemingly weak counterparts do so at their own peril.