President Trump Mike Pence
Credit: The White House/Flickr

In my last piece, I wrote that “Trump Doesn’t Understand Game Theory” and used the current debate in Congress over a disaster relief bill as my example. There were four main critiques of his negotiating style. One was that he doesn’t utilize all the information that is available to him. Another was that he doesn’t closely examine the incentives of other players. The third was that he often operates solo when he is engaged in team activity, like a selfish basketball player more concerned about scoring points than winning games. And the final one was that he cares more about how he is perceived by his base than about getting results.

We can see all of these elements in how Trump handled the government shutdown. Jake Sherman and Anna Palmer wrote a Politico piece that goes into some depth on how the shutdown came about, and touches on Trump’s conversations with then-Speaker of the House Paul Ryan.

For context, these episodes took place during the lame-duck session of Congress after the GOP had lost control of the House in the midterms, but before they actually had to relinquish their power. The Senate, in coordination with the White House, had already passed a bill to keep the government open, and did so with an unrecorded and unanimous voice-vote. Yet, after the Senate bill passed, a lot of people on the right began criticizing the president for giving up on his border wall.  Trump was particularly incensed by the slings and arrows he was taking on Fox NewsHe called Paul Ryan to tell him that he wasn’t happy and was going to back out of the deal he had made with him to sign the funding bill.

Then Ryan got a call from Trump himself and heard the bad news straight from the president’s mouth: Trump told Ryan he was getting beat up on cable television, didn’t like it and was turning against the spending plan.

Ryan had little patience for this type of bullshit. You always suffered somewhere for making big decisions. Ryan had been a darling of the right wing before he became speaker and gave that up when he got into leadership. That’s just what leaders do, Ryan thought. You take the flak and move on. Trump, in Ryan’s view, was never able to do that.

“That’s how this always works,” Ryan told the president. He explained that a compromise bill to keep the government open would, indeed, anger the talkers on Fox News, but they would eventually get over it. The speaker tried to explain to Trump that a shutdown was not in his interest, but he wasn’t making much progress. “There’s no endgame,” Ryan said of shutting down the government. “You’ll just help the Democrats.”

“OK,” Trump said. “Let’s just talk in the morning.” Ryan hung up the phone feeling a bit better.

Here we see the President responding to criticism from his base. We see Paul Ryan asking for a strategy—some theory of the game he’s being asked to play—and getting nothing in response. The next morning, the House Republicans held a meeting where Ryan and his then-deputy Kevin McCarthy tried to convince at least half of their caucus to vote for the Senate bill, which would have allowed them to avoid violating the Hastert Rule. It was clear however, that the president and members of the Freedom Caucus had teamed up against them and now they had a mutiny on their hands.

As his fellow Republicans raged, Ryan’s phone rang. It was the president. Ryan stepped out of the meeting and into a small office next to the party’s Capitol meeting room to take the call. It was as if his conversation with Trump from the night before had picked up exactly where it left off: Trump was once again telling Ryan that he was getting killed on television.

Again? Ryan was pissed. He knew that [Rep. Mark] Meadows had gotten to the president. Look, he told Trump, “this is some Fox News people, this is some Freedom Caucus guys and that’s it.” Ryan wanted Trump to see that the opposition was limited. “What’s your endgame?” Ryan quizzed him once again. “How do you get out of this? It’s like you’re shooting yourself in the foot.”

Paul Ryan was doing the normal thing and wondering how shutting down the government was going to get the president what he wanted. He did not understand what he was being asked to do because it would not result in victory or success. It doesn’t seem to have occurred to him that Trump was less concerned about winning than avoiding the criticism he was seeing on his television.

Trump could have sought some advice. He could have asked Ryan to come up with a strategy that would divide the Democrats and assure that they got the greater half of the blame for the government shutdown. But he doesn’t think about the incentives of the people he’s trying to manipulate. As I said in my earlier piece, if his position is strong enough relative to his opponent, he can prevail simply by bullying them, but he doesn’t do well on a more even playing field.

So, Trump made a decision to shut down the government until the Democrats gave him what he wanted, but he had no plan for getting the Democrats to change their position. And it wasn’t just a failure to come up with a strategy that was a problem. Trump didn’t get that he ought to have one. He didn’t know that there were no strategies that would work because he didn’t examine the incentives of the players. Finally, he made the mistake of creating a distinction between his goals and the Republican lawmakers’ incentives. By not taking their needs into consideration, Trump assured that the congressional representatives would eventually turn and compel him to back down.

Trump makes these mistakes repeatedly, and it definitely drives the Republican leadership crazy. Just last week, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell had to tell the president that he was not going to work on writing a replacement for Obamacare despite Trump’s promise to the nation that he would do so. McConnell wasn’t interested because he knows that Nancy Pelosi controls the House and that he can’t force her to do a damn thing. Writing a big health care bill would divide his caucus and demonstrate (again) their inability to replace the Affordable Care Act. It would be a giant and self-injurious waste of his time.

We can see Trump’s failure as a negotiator anywhere we care to look. It’s most consequential on the international stage, particularly on the negotiations over denuclearization with North Korea, but also with Iran and trade negotiations with China. He doesn’t succeed because he doesn’t understand how to do the basics. You want all the information you can get. You need to know the rules and the motives of every player and all their possible moves. You need to give people a reason to do what you want, and if they have no such reasons then you have to create them. You need to understand whether you’re playing one-on-one or in a team game.

Paul Ryan must be relieved that he doesn’t have to work with Trump anymore.

Martin Longman

Martin Longman is the web editor for the Washington Monthly. See all his writing at