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Trump told the Russians that firing Comey took the pressure off. This is what he should have said instead.

- May 21, 2017
President Trump speaks to Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov, left, and Russian Ambassador Sergei Kislyak during a May 10 meeting at the White House. (Russian Foreign Ministry via AFP/Getty Images)

Editors’ note: On Friday, the New York Times reported that during his Oval Office meeting with Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov and other Russian officials the day after he fired FBI Director James B. Comey, President Trump told his Russian visitors, “I faced great pressure because of Russia. That’s taken off.”

The Times story also reported that a “government official briefed on the meeting defended the president, saying that Mr. Trump … was using a negotiating tactic when he told Mr. Lavrov about the ‘pressure’ he was under. The idea, the official suggested, was to create a sense of obligation with Russian officials and to coax concessions out of Mr. Lavrov — on Syria, Ukraine and other issues — by saying that Russian meddling in last year’s election had created enormous political problems for Mr. Trump.”

We asked James Fearon, a professor of political science at Stanford who has studied international bargaining extensively, what he made of the White House explanation and what kind of “pressure” might be helpful in a bargaining situation with another country from which a leader wants to extract concessions. Here is his response, lightly edited.

It’s hard to know what to make of this interaction based only on the information in the New York Times article. Maybe the participants said other things at the meeting that were more consistent with this interpretation. But on the face of it, the story of the “government official” doesn’t square with what Trump is reported to have said.

The article has Trump saying that by firing Comey, the “great pressure” he faced “because of Russia” has been taken off. What pressure? Sean Spicer is quoted in the same article as saying, “By grandstanding and politicizing the investigation into Russia’s actions, James Comey created unnecessary pressure on our ability to engage and negotiate with Russia.”

In other words, the administration felt constrained in talking to or making deals with the Russians — a priority Trump had stressed during the 2016 campaign — by the concern that doing so would support the narrative of collusion or electoral debt.

Now, Trump seems to be saying, with Comey gone I don’t have to worry about that anymore. So I can get back to my stated goal of making nice and cutting deals with you (i.e., the Russians).

If, as the government official has it, Trump was trying to say, “Hey, help me out here, because you guys have caused enormous trouble for me,” then he certainly shouldn’t have been telling them that the “great pressure” he faced from the Russia investigation had now been “taken off.” He should have been saying something like, “Even though Comey’s gone, I’m still under tremendous pressure and my hands are pretty much tied. A good way to get us to a more productive place, or give me some room to maneuver, would be if you did x, y, z on Ukraine/Syria/other issue.”

Saying — and showing evidence that — one’s hands are tied against making a concession is a tried-and-true bargaining tactic. In bargaining situations, there are multiple deals that both sides might prefer to no deal. As Thomas Schelling famously argued, by deliberately tying your hands against making a concession, you might be able to force the other side to be the one to make concessions to get a deal. He compared this tactic to throwing the steering wheel out of the car in a game of automotive chicken.

Here Trump would not have needed to deliberately tie his hands, since the Russians can see that matters have evolved to the point that he could easily cause yet more domestic political trouble for himself by making concessions to get a deal with them on various agenda items.

This is often the way that hands-tying works in international bargaining. A president or prime minister says, in so many words, I can’t make any more concessions on this trade deal, or arms deal, etc., because our Congress wouldn’t ratify it, or because I’d get killed by hard-liners in the press. (“And look at my terrible approval ratings!” Trump could add.)

But invoking tied hands is not what Trump was doing, at least as reported. In fact, it doesn’t even seem to be what the anonymous government official was suggesting. Rather, the government official appears to say that Trump’s approach was to try to get the Russians to have pity on him because they had caused him so much trouble.

If that’s right, it is a naive reading of the situation. Putin and Lavrov are not likely to make concessions on Syria or Ukraine or other issues because they feel bad about the trouble they caused for Trump by intervening in the election. These two are experienced negotiators who have too much at stake politically to make concessions out of “a sense of obligation” for making Trump’s life difficult — a sense of obligation they are not going to feel in any event.

What might this mean for U.S.-Russia relations in the future? This one little interaction probably doesn’t mean much. The Russian leadership already knew that Trump is inexperienced in the domain of foreign policy and that it is relatively easy in bargaining to take advantage of a person who has little knowledge of the substance of the negotiations. Based on what has been reported, it doesn’t seem as if there was much deliberate negotiating going on anyway.

James Fearon is a professor in the Department of Political Science at Stanford University and a senior fellow at Stanford’s Freeman Spogli Institute for International Studies. His main research interest is large-scale armed conflict, both between states and within states.