Dana Milbank: Trump becomes king of the cave

President Donald Trump speaks during a meeting with Pakistani Prime Minister Imran Khan in the Oval Office of the White House, Monday, July 22, 2019, in Washington. (AP Photo/Alex Brandon)

WASHINGTON -- Back in the 1980s, Donald Trump published his seminal business treatise, "The Art of the Deal." Should he write a sequel about his presidency, he might accurately title it "The Art of the Cave."

In recent weeks, President Trump's record has been a cornucopia of climbdowns. Not since the Paleolithic Period, perhaps, has a man had quite so much day-to-day caving experience.

The White House had demanded $150 billion in cuts as part of current budget talks. But on Monday evening, Trump agreed to a deal that raised spending by $320 billion. The Washington Post's Damian Paletta and Erica Werner labeled it a "significant retreat" for Trump, who got some accounting changes "that probably wouldn't constrain any future spending."

A few weeks ago, Trump declared that he was "moving forward" with efforts to put a citizenship question on the 2020 Census questionnaire despite a contrary Supreme Court ruling. But he then announced with fanfare that he would not, in fact, move forward. Was he backing down? "No, no," he said. "Not only didn't I back down, I backed up."

Thanks for that clarification, sir.

In May, Trump announced that he would "shortly" impose 25% tariffs on $325 billion of imported Chinese goods. But in late June, Trump announced he would not actually be imposing the tariffs "at least for the time being," and he set no deadline.

Last month, Trump publicly vowed that "millions" would be deported following raids on immigrants living in the United States illegally. He postponed and rescheduled the raids, but the appointed day came and went with scant evidence that the threatened sweep had occurred.

You might think that after caving so much, Trump would be tired of caving. But you would be wrong.

After pronouncing that there is "no longer a Nuclear Threat from North Korea" and assuring that Kim Jong Un is "denuking the whole place," the Trump administration is reportedly prepared to let North Korea keep nuclear weapons.

After being "cocked and loaded" for an attack on Iran following the downing of a U.S. drone, the president called off his own attack after he "thought about it for a second."

Not that caving is such a bad thing. When it comes to, say, defying the Supreme Court, we're better off that Trump reconsidered. After the president threatened to slap tariffs on all goods imported from Mexico, he sensibly retreated (claiming he had made a "secret deal" with the country). When his administration's policy separated child migrants from parents, Trump thankfully signed an order to reverse the practice. And after saying for weeks that he would keep the federal government closed if he didn't get funds for a border wall, he wised up and said he was "very proud" to reopen the government in January without wall funding.

Some see political calculation in the caves. MSNBC's Ari Melber calls it a pattern of "tweet, hype but then fold" designed to stoke Trump's base by making it appear that extreme policies (such as mass deportation) are being implemented, even though Trump has no such plans.

Possibly. But, as with all attempts to assign strategy to Trump's actions, this might give him too much credit. Trump gives no indication that he thinks at all before speaking or tweeting, and he resists even cursory preparation. During a meeting last week with 2018 Nobel Peace Prize winner Nadia Murad, the Yazidi woman told him the Islamic State had killed her family. Replied Trump: "Where are they now?"

Rather, Trump's constant caving as president may come from misapplying the principles he outlined in "The Art of the Deal." There, he argued for playing it "very loose," and he attested that "you can create leverage" in negotiations by using "imagination" -- that is, fabricating and bluffing. He boasted about creating the (false) impression that one of his casinos "was practically finished" when work had only just started.

But bluffs and fabrications don't work as well for him as president, because his opponent, whether it's Speaker Nancy Pelosi or the Chinese government, knows which cards Trump holds.

So Trump caves -- and dissembles. The mass deportation raids really happened, he said. "You just didn't know about it." The all-important citizenship question isn't so important because "we're already finding out who the citizens are." The failure to get border-wall funding doesn't matter because it "is being built as we speak."

The true Art of the Cave, then, is making it look as though you didn't cave at all.

Dana Milbank | The Washington Post

Follow Dana Milbank on Twitter, @Milbank.

(c) 2019, Washington Post Writers Group