Trump, Pelosi, Schumer: No adult in the room

Many headlines over the past few days have concerned the unruly meeting in the Oval Office involving  President Donald TrumpDonald John TrumpTrump calls for Republicans to be 'united' on abortion Tlaib calls on Amash to join impeachment resolution Facebook temporarily suspended conservative commentator Candace Owens MORE, Vice President Mike PenceMichael (Mike) Richard PenceDozens of graduates walk out in protest of Pence address Trudeau on tariff deal: Canadian and US businesses can get back to 'working constructively together' Congress has a duty to go through with the impeachment and public trial of President Trump MORE, House Speaker-designate Nancy PelosiNancy Patricia D'Alesandro PelosiTlaib calls on Amash to join impeachment resolution 5 things to watch as Trump, Dems clash over investigations GOP lawmaker: Trump has engaged in multiple actions that 'meet the threshold for impeachment' MORE (C-Calif.) and Senate Minority Leader Chuck SchumerCharles (Chuck) Ellis SchumerGetting serious about infrastructure Schumer calls on McConnell to hold vote on Equality Act 'SleepyCreepy Joe' and 'Crazy Bernie': Trump seeks to define 2020 Dems with insults MORE (D-N.Y.). Fox News and other conservative-leaning outlets claimed the president performed wonderfully and that Pelosi and Schumer behaved shamefully. MSNBC and other more left-leaning outlets, of course, made the opposite claim. Frankly, they are both right — and both wrong. None of the participants performed well, much less admirably.

To start, each person should have been seasoned enough to know that putting cameras in the room for a free-for-all conversation was like giving opioids to a drug addict. That was an amateurish move, at best. With the cameras rolling, any serious, experienced person should know that anything other than a planned joint statement, such as “We have differences of opinion, but we are going to sit down together and figure out how we might move forward,” is likely to lead down a rabbit hole from which there is no return. That is exactly what happened. It is hard to understand how people at this level of government could make such a mistake.  

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With the apparent absence of a planned joint statement and agreed-upon ground rules, the three leaders (the vice president apparently didn’t say a word) engaged in a self-indulgent cat fight.   Each tried to play to his or her base, rather than behaving as leaders deserving of their high offices. None was above the fray. None, including the vice president, attempted to diffuse the situation. None acted like the adult in the room.  

The president, for his part, failed to display any of the deal-making skills he boasted about on the campaign trail. He started the meeting poorly. Rather than simply thanking his guests for venturing up Pennsylvania Avenue and stating that he looked forward to their discussions, he began by making a political speech on the importance of a border wall. He could not resist the opportunity to pontificate for his base.   

Then he turned the floor over to Pelosi. It is hard to imagine what the president was thinking, or if he was thinking at all. Did he expect her to simply say, “Yes, sir; thank you, sir” after his speech about the wall?  If he did, it wasn’t a very realistic expectation.

Pelosi snatched the opportunity. After contending that the president doesn’t have the votes to fund his wall, she got out her main talking point of a potential “Trump shutdown” of government. The meeting went downhill from there.  

With cameras still rolling, Trump, Pelosi, and Schumer each proceeded to display their testosterone levels, rather than their negotiating skills and emotional intelligence. The discussion deteriorated into a juvenile debate instead of a meaningful negotiation (much less a discussion of what is best for the country). It was not a pretty sight.   

None of the participants should be proud of his or her performance. The president should know how to run a meeting better than my 8-year-old grandson. If he does, he didn’t show it. The president also said he would be “proud” to shut down the government if he doesn’t get what he wants. Private-citizen Trump resoundingly criticized President Obama for a lack of leadership when a government shutdown happened on his watch, claiming Obama should have gotten the various leaders together to work out a solution. As president, Trump certainly did not demonstrate any such ability.   

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Putting aside his hypocrisy, it is hard to fathom how any president would be “proud” to shut down the government for any reason. A government shutdown strains tens of thousands of government employees and many others who rely on government services. Why would anyone, much less the president, be “proud” to cause them pain?  

Pelosi didn’t do much better. One would hope she would be experienced enough to know that if she insists on making her talking point — a “Trump shutdown” — on camera in the Oval Office, he would not sit quietly by. If her goal was to show how tough she is, she did a fine job. If her goal was to work out a resolution with a co-equal branch of government, she failed miserably. It would have been encouraging, indeed refreshing, to watch the soon-to-be House speaker  exercise more self-control in the moment. But it is exactly this weakness that causes her to be such a lightning rod for her opposition. How different it would have been if she had said, “We have different opinions on a number of issues, Mr. President, but I look forward to our discussions to see what we can agree upon.”

Schumer was no more effective. He made no points to speak of, and would not look the president in the eye. Rather than finding a way to move the process forward, he got bogged down futilely arguing with the president.   

So, contrary to the pundits and commentators, no one really won in this Oval Office argument. Sooner or later, one way or another, a deal will be struck, either before or after a government shutdown. That our leaders couldn’t be adult enough to create even a pretense of sophistication for the American public is embarrassing and worrisome. The greater shame is that, rather than using the opportunity to try to work together, they resorted to politically-motivated soundbites and partisan bickering. The real loser is the American public.   

Gary A. Garfield is the retired chairman, president and CEO of Bridgestone Americas Inc. He practiced law for 29 years and was the general counsel and chief compliance officer before leading the company.