Trump’s Mexico call: The Art of the Desperate Appeal

As transcripts of Donald Trump’s conversations and interviews continue to roll out [authorized or not], we are getting a behind-the-scenes look at how he really operates. For instance, he has repeatedly bragged that he is the world’s best deal-maker and negotiator. But when a transcript emerged of a phone call he had with Mexico’s president, it revealed a Trump who was inept at getting what he wanted, and who essentially pleaded with Pena Nieto to help him out.

The New York times has posted the transcript, with annotations indicating where Trump  threatened, exaggerated, got his facts wrong, privately backtracked on his big campaign pledge to build a wall and make Mexico pay for it, and tried to instruct Pena Nieto on how to talk about the wall in public. The annotated version makes it clear that—as usual—Trump often has no idea of what he is talking about, throws around numbers that don’t add up, and has not done his homework before making this call.

For me, though, there’s another significant revelation in this transcript: Trump’s negotiating “style” is mostly about creating a continuous, overpowering wave of words, whether they add up to anything meaningful or not. He’s not at all artful. He’s just trying to out-talk the other guy, to wear him down in order to get him to say yes. So, this is how Trump negotiates: under-informed and over-talked. He doesn’t sound very masterful here. Maybe he should change the name of his book from The Art of the Deal to The Art of the Desperate Appeal. 

In this case, “yes” would mean that Pena Nieto agrees—not to pay for the border wall that Trump has been touting for two years—but to stop saying publicly that he won’t pay for it. Reading the transcript of this section of the conversation, I get the impression that Trump is just trying to drown Pena Nieto in verbiage.

But as he attempts to get Pena Nieto to give him political cover for a situation Trump has created for himself, he starts sounding pretty desperate. Some people have described it as “begging.” Clearly, what is important to him is not maintaining goodwill with our closest neighbors, nor is it understanding the nature of our economic interactions with Mexico. As you read this section of the transcript, Trump’s own words bear out what can no longer be called speculation about his priorities: his main concern is himself and how he is perceived by his base. Everything else is secondary to that. To borrow an interjection that Trump himself often uses in his tweets: “Sad!”

Call it what you will. If this is how our president talks with the leaders of other countries, he deserves to be the subject of international derision that he is rumored to be.

Pena Nieto:

You have a very big mark on our back, Mr. President, regarding who pays for the wall. This is what I suggest, Mr. President – let us stop talking about the wall. I have recognized the right of any government to protect its borders as it deems necessary and convenient. But my position has been and will continue to be very firm saying that Mexico cannot pay for that 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.


The only thing I will ask you though is on the wall, you and I both have a political problem. My people stand up and say, “Mexico will pay for the wall” and your people probably say something in a similar but slightly different language. But the fact is we are both in a little bit of a political bind because I have to have Mexico pay for the wall – I have to. I have been talking about it for a two year period, and the reason I say they are going to pay for the wall is because Mexico has made a fortune out of the stupidity of U.S. trade representatives. They are beating us at trade and they are beating us at the border, and they are killing us with drugs. Now I know you are not involved with that, but regardless of who is making all the money, billions and billions and billions – some people say more – is being made on drug trafficking that is coming through Mexico. Some people say that the business of drug trafficking is bigger than the business of taking our factory jobs. So what I would like to recommend is – if we are going to have continued dialogue – we will work out the wall. They are going to say, “who is going to pay for the wall, Mr. President?” to both of us, and we should both say, “we will work it out.” It will work out in the formula somehow. As opposed to you saying, “we will not pay” and me saying, “we will not pay.”

Because you and I are both at a point now where we are both saying we are not to pay for the wall. From a political standpoint, that is what we will say. We cannot say that anymore because if you are going to say that Mexico is not going to pay for the wall, then I do not want to meet with you guys anymore because I cannot live with that. I am willing to say that we will work it out, but that means it will come out in the wash and that is okay. But you cannot say anymore that the United States is going to pay for the wall. I am just going to say that we are working it out. Believe it or not, this is the least important thing that we are talking about, but politically this might be the most important talk about. But in terms of dollars – or pesos – it is the least important thing. I know how to build very inexpensively, so it will be much lower than these numbers I am being presented with, and it will be a better wall and it will look nice. And it will do the job.