By Peter Baker
WASHINGTON — For nine days, he had his finger on the trigger and threatened to pull. For nine days, he put two countries, entire multinational industries, vast swaths of consumers and workers and even his own advisers and Republican allies on edge, unsure what would happen with billions of dollars at stake.
And then, almost as abruptly as it started, it was over. President Trump announced that he was calling off the crippling new tariffs he had vowed to impose on Mexico barely 48 hours before they were to go into effect because he had struck a last-minute immigration agreement— one that mainly just reaffirmed prior agreements.
Nine days in spring offered a case study in Mr. Trump’s approach to some of the most daunting issues confronting him and the nation: When the goal seems frustratingly out of reach through traditional means, threaten drastic action, set a deadline, demand concessions, cut a deal — real or imagined — avert the dire outcome and declare victory. If nothing else, he forces attention on the issue at hand. Whether the approach yields sustainable results seems less certain.
These are often dramas of his own making, with him naturally the hero. He stakes out maximalist positions and issues brutal ultimatums to compel action, arguing that extreme problems demand extreme tactics. At times, though, it can seem like little more than smoke and mirrors substituting for serious policymaking, a way of pretending to make progress without actually solving the underlying problem.
“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.
This threat shook up Mexico enough that its foreign minister rushed to Washington to again promise to do more. Under the deal announced this past Friday night, Mexico agreed to deploy its recently formed national guard throughout the country to stop migrants from reaching the United States and to expand a program making some migrants wait in Mexico while their asylum claims are heard in the United States.
But Mexico had committed to do those things before, and it had rebuffed a more significant demand, a “safe third country” treaty, which gives the United States the ability to reject asylum seekers if they had not sought refuge in Mexico first. Instead, Mexico agreed to continue talking about such a move over the next 90 days.
Even so, advocates of tougher action on immigration applauded Mr. Trump’s deal, saying his hardball negotiating tactics had paid off. Even if the main upshot is to prod Mexico to be more aggressive pursuing policies it had in theory previously embraced, they said that would justify the effort and could pay off down the road.
“These are certainly unusual negotiating tactics,” said Alfonso Aguilar, the president of the Latino Partnership for Conservative Principles. “Imposing tariffs as a way to get a particular result is very risky, particularly if those tariffs remain in place for a long time.
“Trump, however, has managed to use the threat of tariffs or real tariffs effectively to accomplish specific goals in a short time,” Mr. Aguilar added, “sometimes things that have eluded previous presidents because they’ve followed more conventional ways of negotiating.”
Other presidents were indeed more judicious about issuing threats, fearing the consequences if they had to follow through or the damage to their credibility if they did not. Scholars could not recall any other commander in chief who was as prolific in his use of threats as a tool of leadership as Mr. Trump has been.
“Not a single one,” said Shirley Anne Warshaw, a professor at Gettysburg College, who has written multiple books on presidential decision-making. “He is an outlier,” she added, referring to Mr. Trump.
This is what the threatener-in-chief does. He unsettles the settled. He shakes up the status quo. Daring to some, reckless to others, it is nonetheless never dull and it keeps the audience on edge, as he tried to do for 14 years hosting a reality show on network television. What will he do next?
After withdrawing his tariff threat against Mexico, Mr. Trump expressed displeasure at some of the “reviews” — his word — of the drama. “While the reviews and reporting on our Border Immigration Agreement with Mexico have been very good, there has nevertheless been much false reporting (surprise!) by the Fake and Corrupt News Media, such as Comcast/NBC, CNN, @nytimes & @washingtonpost,” he wrote on Twitter on Saturday.
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 government without 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.
The saber-rattling has a way of stressing allies almost as much as adversaries. Over the past week, Senate Republicans and American corporations balked at the prospect of tariffs on Mexican imports, which could have had far-reaching impact on the supply chains of the auto industry and other sectors while increasing store costs for consumers.
Even after the deal was struck on Friday night, the Business Roundtable issued a statement essentially asking Mr. Trump not to do it again, describing itself as “deeply concerned about the threat or imposition of tariffs to press policy changes with our neighbors and allies.”
Business, after all, likes certitude, predictability. So does Washington. The only thing predictable about Mr. Trump’s presidency is the unpredictability. “I don’t want people to know exactly what I’m doing — or thinking,” he wrote in his campaign book. “I like being unpredictable. It keeps them off balance.”
On that, at least, he was unquestionably successful. For nine days, he kept everyone off balance.