By now you’ve almost certainly heard or read about the leaked transcripts of President Trump’s phone calls with Mexican President Enrique Peña Nieto and Australian Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull. The content of these transcripts has, if possible, even further reduced the esteem with which the rest of the world holds our current leader.
Setting aside for now any discussion about whether this leak was appropriate, I want to just focus on one specific exchange in the transcripts that I found especially bizarre. This exchange, between Trump and Peña Nieto about their disagreement over paying for the border wall, has already received a lot of attention, as it obviously reveals (or perhaps just reinforces) quite a bit about our President and how he interacts with foreign leaders. It also demonstrates the political trap he set for himself by misleading his own base about one of his biggest campaign promises. But this exchange was interesting to me for even an additional reason: because it made me flash back to something from my own personal experience.
Just in case anyone missed what happened with the phone call, after a nearly two-year campaign in which one of his premiere promises was that he would build a border wall and make Mexico pay for it, Trump had a call with Mexican President Peña Nieto shortly after his inauguration in January. During this call, Trump essentially conceded that Mexico wouldn’t be paying for the wall, but tried to enlist Peña Nieto in hiding this fact from the American people. Here’s Trump:
[T]he 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 . . .
[Y]ou 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.
When Peña Nieto continued to insist that Mexico would not pay for the wall, Trump responded:
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.
This interaction is so outlandish, because it’s not simply Trump attempting to enlist help from someone who has no reason to want to help him, he’s actually asking for a favor that would be detrimental to the person he’s trying to recruit. Peña Nieto wouldn’t have a reason to assist Trump with this scam even if what Trump was asking him for was a neutral favor.
But what Trump’s asking for here would actually be harmful to Peña Nieto. If he had agreed to say publicly what Trump wanted him to – that they were “working it out” on the payment – instead of standing firm on the fact that Mexico would not be paying, that would have hurt his standing with his own people. It would have made Peña Nieto look like a weak leader. Trump was asking Peña Nieto to put himself in the exact position Trump was trying so desperately to avoid. Why would Peña Nieto be willing to do that for him?
But Trump’s world view, and view of himself in the world, is so distorted that he can’t even see that this political problem that he got himself into is a problem entirely of his own making. And Peña Nieto has no incentive, and no duty, to help him out of it. Trump can’t understand this – in his narcissistic view, if something is a problem for him, it must be a problem for everyone around him, and therefore they just must want to help him out of it, no matter the cost to themselves. Furthermore, based on his conversation with Peña Nieto, it appears he expects them to do this even if he has nothing to offer them in return. The supposed “great negotiator” doesn’t understand that the person on the other side of the negotiation has interests that must be met too.
Reading the transcript of these Trump-style “negotiations” immediately brought me back to an experience I had in my own life. The stakes in my story were of course much lower than the fates of two North American countries and their leaders. But the style was recognizable . . .
Years ago, I was looking to move into a new apartment, and I needed to move pretty quickly. So I had arranged to rent an apartment from the apartment’s owner, who’d been sent to work at his law firm’s London office. He wanted me to sign a lease for the apartment which included a provision saying that I’d move out at a moment’s notice if his firm sent him back to the U.S. and he needed the apartment back.
Of course I didn’t want to agree to that, because I wanted to know I had a place to live for a full year. He kept trying to convince me, explaining to me condescendingly that he wanted this provision because his law firm could transfer him back to the U.S. at any time and then he’d want to be able to move back into his apartment. But I – understanding the situation perfectly well – kept saying no and finally he agreed that we’d sign a standard one year lease.
About half way through the year, I’m at work one day (at the law firm where I too was a lawyer – which you’d think might’ve been a hint not to try to scam me), and I get a call from him – my “landlord.” He tells me that his firm is sending him back to the U.S. and he needs his apartment back. I tell him basically, oh wow, that’s a bummer for you, you can have it back in 6 months. He says, “see, this is why I wanted you to sign the lease the way I originally asked for it.” And I respond, “Yeah, see, this is why I didn’t.”
I’ve thought about this incident quite a few times in the years since, even though it was just a small life ripple – inconsequential in the big picture of things. The complete inability of my “landlord” to understand that there was another side to the equation other than his, that there was a person across from him with interests divergent from his own, was just baffling to me. The fact that he thought I’d feel a duty to sacrifice my own well being in order to help him out of a problem that was entirely of his own making (when he needed the apartment back) was utterly inexplicable to me. The experience stuck with me, because I was so astonished that someone would have the such expectations, or that he would’ve ever thought I’d fall for his manipulations and give in. I mean, who acts like that??
Well, that was then . . . This is now and we’ve got a U.S. President demanding that Mexico’s leader humiliate himself publicly in order to save his hide over a promise he never should have made and will never be able to keep. We’ve got a President making this demand of a leader that he’s treated with nothing but disrespect and condescension. We’ve got a President expecting someone else to sacrifice their own reputation in order save him from a problem that’s entirely of his own making. We’ve got ourselves stuck with the world’s worst, most self-absorbed con artist of a landlord. And unfortunately for us, the lease doesn’t end for another three and a half years.