For nearly thirty years Donald Trump has flirted with a presidential run and for nearly thirty years he has had one consistent message: America needs a master negotiator to save the country from the international sharks outwitting its leaders.
After floating a presidential run several times since 1987, Trump finally made the jump into a presidential race in June. Since then, he has shot to the top of Republican primary polls.
Reporters and pundits have pointed out that Trump has dramatically shifted his positions over the years on a number of key issues, from taxes to health care to abortion. But the idea that America’s leaders are being outmaneuvered on the international stage has remained a constant theme for Trump over the decades.
“[T]he people negotiating don’t have a clue. Our president doesn’t have a clue. He’s a bad negotiator,” Trump said in June while announcing his candidacy.
Trump highlighted Mexico, China, Iran and Japan as countries whose negotiators constantly outsmart America’s leadership on everything from trade to nuclear deals to immigration.
“I know the smartest negotiators in the world,” Trump proclaimed, later adding that he would “put them one for each country.”
“Believe me, folks,” he promised. “We will do very, very well, very, very well.”
Trump first trotted out this theme in September 1987, just months before he would publish his first and most famous book, “The Art Of The Deal.”
“For decades, Japan and other nations have been taking advantage of the United States,” Trump wrote in a full-page ad he had published in The New York Times, The Washington Post and The Boston Globe, critiquing Ronald Reagan’s foreign policy. “The saga continues unabated as we defend the Persian Gulf, an area of only marginal significance to the United States for its oil supplies, but one upon which Japan and others are almost totally dependent.”
“The world is laughing at America’s politicians as we protect ships we don’t own, carrying oil we don’t need, destined for allies who won’t help,” Trump lamented. The ad declared at the top: “There’s nothing wrong with America’s Foreign Defense Policy that a little backbone can’t cure.”
A month after publishing the ad, a 41-year old Trump visited New Hampshire and gave what the New York Times described as an “impassioned” speech to an “enthusiastic audience,” fueling speculation that he might enter the 1988 presidential race.
“There is a way you can ask them and they will give it, if you have the right person asking,” Trump said, railing against the United State being “kicked around” by countries like Japan and Saudi Arabia, according to The Times’ account.
“I’m tired of nice people already in Washington,” he went on. “I want someone who is tough and knows how to negotiate. If not, our country faces disaster.”
Trump didn’t ultimately enter the presidential race, deciding instead to support George H.W Bush. Appearing on CNN’s “Larry King Live” at the 1988 Republican National Convention in New Orleans, Trump dismissed the idea he was ever actually considering a presidential run. “I doubt I’ll ever been involved in politics beyond what I do right now,” he said.
Just a week after Bush was elected president, Trump appeared on NBC’s “Late Night with David Letterman,” where he once again lamented how America was being out-negotiated by governments around the world.
“We are living in very precarious time. When you look at what certain countries are doing to this country, such as Japan. I mean, they’ve totally taken advantage of the country,” he complained to Letterman. “I’m talking about the deficits. They come and they talk about free trade. They dump the cars and the VCRs and everything else. We defend Japan for virtually nothing, which is hard to believe. So when I see all that I get very nervous.”
Trump said that he thought the newly elected president would “do a great job” and “hopefully … straighten things out.”
Asked by Letterman if he would ever consider running for president, Trump quipped: “I’m not sure you want to see the United States become a winner — do you want to see the United States become a winner, David?
Two years later, in another interview with Larry King during the midst of his divorce to his first wife, Ivana, Trump yet again complained how other countries were taking advantage of the United States.
“I have tremendous respect for the Japanese, just tremendous respect,” Trump said. “You have to understand Larry, I have great respect. When these people come over and beat the hell out of our politicians and outsmart ’em from day one.”
Trump sounded a hopeful note that America’s then-current leadership, especially Bush administration Secretary of Commerce Bob Mosbacher, would do a better job negotiating with the Japanese.
In 1999, Trump again flirted with a presidential run, this time as member of the Reform Party. In January 2000, he released a new book to coincide with his consideration. In “The America We Deserve,” Trump returned to his longstanding belief that what America needed was a skilled “dealmaker” in the Oval Office.
“In the modern world you can’t very easily draw up a simple, general foreign policy,” Trump wrote. “I was busy making deals during the last decade of the Cold War. Now the game has changed. The day of the chess player is over. Foreign policy has to be put in the hands of a dealmaker.”
Trump went on to explain why a “dealmaker” president was necessary.
“A dealmaker can keep many balls in the air, weigh the competing interests of other nations, and above all, constantly put America’s best interests first,” he explained. “The dealmaker knows when to be tough and when to back off. He knows when to bluff and he knows when to threaten, understanding that you threaten only when prepared to carry out the threat. The dealmaker is cunning, secretive, focused, and never settles for less than he wants. It’s been a long time since America had a president like that.”
As president, Trump wrote that he would be negotiator-in-chief, taking “personal charge of negotiations with the Japanese, the French, the Germans, and the Saudis.”
“Our trading partners would have to sit across the table from Donald Trump, and I guarantee you the rip-off of the United States would end,” he boasted.
During the 2012 presidential cycle, Trump again floated a potential presidential bid. He ultimately decided not to run, but he did release yet another political book in 2011, “Time To Get Tough.”
“China is bilking us for hundreds of billions of dollars by manipulating and devaluing its currency,” Trump complained. “Despite all the happy talk in Washington, the Chinese leaders are not our friends. I’ve been criticized for calling them our enemy. But what else do you call the people who are destroying your children’s and grandchildren’s future?”
What America needed to deal with governments like China who were outwitting America’s leadership, Trump argued, was a master negotiator.
“If we’re going to make America number one again, we’ve got to have a president who knows how to get tough with China, how to out-negotiate the Chinese, and how to keep them from screwing us at every turn,” he explained.
Now officially a presidential candidate, Trump is emphasizing a message he has honed over three decades, hoping to convince Americans that only someone with his particularly skill set can “make America great again.” It’s early, but judging by the polls, it appears a significant slice of the Republican electorate is at least momentarily buying his message.