Trump’s Art of the Threat

The latest is about deportations

After threatening to deport “millions” Trump has backed down from launching deportation raids this weekend (at least for the moment). The NYT reports: Trump Says He’ll Delay Deportation Operation Aimed at Undocumented Families.

President Trump on Saturday delayed plans for nationwide raids to deport undocumented families, but he threatened to unleash Immigration and Customs Enforcement agents in two weeks if Democrats do not submit to changes in asylum law they have long opposed.

The announcement, made on Twitter as Mr. Trump was meeting with aides at Camp David, was the president’s latest attempt to pressure his adversaries into making immigration changes. Last month, he threatened to levy tariffs on Mexico unless it did more to stop the flow of migrants into the United States.


On Saturday, Ms. Pelosi put out a strongly worded statement, calling the raids “heartless” and saying they would rip families apart and terrorize communities. She publicly urged Mr. Trump to “stop this brutal action.”
The president did that a few hours later, announcing that “at the request of Democrats, I have delayed the Illegal Immigration Removal Process (Deportation) for two weeks.”

But Mr. Trump made clear he planned to use the threat of family deportations to extract concessions from Democratic lawmakers. He said he had delayed the raids “to see if the Democrats and Republicans can get together and work out a solution to the Asylum and Loophole problems at the Southern Border.”

“If not, Deportations start!” he tweeted.

This whole scenario reminded me of the tariff threats made earlier in the month. It is a pattern: make a dramatic threat, back down, and then pretend like whatever happens after the crazy threat is the result of said threat.

This further reminds me of this NYT piece from June 9th: A Drama of Trump’s Own Making Ends With a Familiar Hero:

“This is a pattern we’ve seen since the first days of this administration,” said Ned Price, a former C.I.A. official who worked on President Barack Obama’s National Security Council staff and is now director of policy at National Security Action, a progressive foreign policy advocacy organization.

“The president manufactures a crisis, galvanizes his base around the challenge, leaves the definition of success undefined, pretends to play hardball and, lo and behold, finds a solution that entails little more than window-dressing, if that,” Mr. Price said. “For Trump, it’s a win-win.” But “the loser tends to be the American people, oftentimes Trump’s base first and foremost,” he added.

This same script played out just two months ago. Mr. Trump loudly threatened to close the border with Mexico altogether unless it did more to stop illegal immigration. Mexico promised action. Mr. Trump dropped the threat. But then the flow of migrants only increased, prompting Mr. Trump to issue a new threat on May 30 this time to impose escalating tariffs that would have started on Monday.

I can’t decide how much of this just is just his own simplistic way of thinking and how much is consciously designed to pump his base (who always lap this stuff up). At a minimum, he has a gift for it (a con man’s gift, to be sure).

Mr. Trump’s penchant for threats has been characteristic of his administration from the beginning. In the first days of his presidency, he threatened to impose a high import tax on all goods coming into the country, only to retreat amid a storm of protests by business and its allies.

He makes lots of threats he never follows through on. He regularly threatens to sue adversaries and rewrite libel laws to punish news media organizations. He threatened to take away a license from NBC, to eliminate a tax break for the National Football League and to withdraw American troops from South Korea over a trade dispute.

He threatened repeatedly to lock up Hillary Clinton (while bristling when Nancy Pelosi threatened to do the same to him). He threatened to release tapes of his conversations with James B. Comey when he was F.B.I. director, only to later admit there were no such recordings. He threatened to punish General Motors for closing a plant.

Some threats are more apocalyptic. He threatened “fire and fury”against North Korea and “the official end of Iran” if either endangered the United States. His bellicose rhetoric about North Korea led to unprecedented talks with its leader, Kim Jong-un, although a nuclear agreement remains elusive. Iran brought two ships with missiles back to port and unloaded them. His threat to scrap the North American Free Trade Agreement yielded negotiations with Mexico and Canada that produced a revised pact.

But threats, idle or otherwise, get him in trouble too. His repeated threats to fire Robert S. Mueller III, the special counsel, amounted to obstruction of justice, according to his critics. His defense is that they were just threats and he did not actually follow through — or his staff refused to carry out his wishes.

And some targets no longer shrink in the face of threats as they once did. After Mr. Trump last week threatened an economic boycott against AT&T to influence the news coverage of its subsidiary, CNN, it was largely ignored. Not only did investors not flee, but AT&T’s stock is up 5.7 percent since he issued the threat.

Still, it would be a mistake to assume they are always bluffs. The president has followed through on plenty of threats, as when he slapped steel and aluminum tariffs on American allies and withdrew from Mr. Obama’s nuclear agreement with Iran and Paris climate change accord. Mr. Trump backed off a threat to increase tariffs on China last winter, but when further talks stalled, he followed through on it this spring.

He repeatedly talked about shutting down the government to extract money for his border wall from Congress and then finally did so in December. Of course, it did not produce the result he desired; after 35 days, he retreated and reopened the governmentwithout more money for the wall than he had already secured. He then followed through on a threat to declare a national emergency and spend money on the wall anyway.

So, he has made his dramatic threat to deport millions (which was immediately shown to be an exaggeration). He has now shown mercy by no acting and has declared the ball to be in the Democrats’ court. If nothing happens, he will blame the Democrats. If anything whatsoever happens, he will claim that it is because of his threats (regardless of whether the outcome is efficacious or was going to happen anyway).

Whatever it is, it isn’t governing. It has the appearance of governing without all that nasty actually having to do any work, apply any logic, or really having any understanding of what the goal actually is.

He is the Con-Man-in-Chief. The Fabulist of the United States.

All hail FOTUS.

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Steven L. Taylor
About Steven L. Taylor
Steven L. Taylor is a Professor of Political Science and a College of Arts and Sciences Dean. His main areas of expertise include parties, elections, and the institutional design of democracies. His most recent book is the co-authored A Different Democracy: American Government in a 31-Country Perspective. He earned his Ph.D. from the University of Texas and his BA from the University of California, Irvine. He has been blogging since 2003 (originally at the now defunct Poliblog). Follow Steven on Twitter


  1. Stormy Dragon says:

    I can’t decide how much of this just is just his own simplistic way of thinking and how much is consciously designed to pump his base (who always lap this stuff up).

    It pumps up his base because they have similarly simplistic ways of thinking.

  2. An Interested Party says:

    He is the Con-Man-in-Chief. The Fabulist of the United States.

    What level of delusion must his supporters have not to realize this? People like Mitch McConnell have latched on to this fraud for power, but those who genuinely support him, how can they not see the reality of what he really is…

  3. OzarkHillbilly says:

    Trump’s Art of the Threat

    Steven, WordPress screwed up and left out “Empty” from the title.


    It has the appearance of governing

    ????? I know Republicans are of the opinion that tearing down and fatally hamstringing any and all government is of the highest moral order but it has very little relationship to governance.

  4. grumpy realist says:

    @Stormy Dragon: I doubt Trump has read up (at all) on the latest discoveries in psychology, but he’s essentially doing brain manipulation. Probably stumbled into it at as technique when growing up. Claims that he will do X. Makes a big noise about it. Even though he “backs down”, he can then later go ahead and claim that he did X and people’s brains are more likely to believe him, especially if any debunking by the media is met with one of Trump’s trademarked “Fake Noos!”

  5. DrDaveT says:

    @grumpy realist:

    I doubt Trump has read up (at all) on the latest discoveries in psychology, but he’s essentially doing brain manipulation. Probably stumbled into it at as technique when growing up.

    To me, it looks more like the standard behavior of an abusive spouse. The pattern of abuse sets the baseline, always blaming the victim as deserving the abuse. After a while, refraining from a specific promised punishment gets perceived as a positive act — a reward. The abuser then gets moral credit for mercy and restraint. It’s sick, but common.

  6. CSK says:

    @An Interested Party: Because his base identifies with him, the way they did with Sarah Palin. He’s them; they’re him. Trump (and Palin) talk the way they do. Everyone else (including Republicans) is an “elite” out to screw them. Only Trump can save them.

  7. Matt says:

    @An Interested Party: Because they don’t really pay attention to politics and what little attention they give is to fox news and crew. So in their minds Trump is doing fantastic amazing best ever at presidenting and he really pisses them democrats off!!!

    I have a few “manly” men on facebook that actually believe Trump is some kind of alpha. It’s hilarious and sad.