Conrad Black vouches for Donald Trump

Black on Trump: 'He knows what he wants, and he’s quite good at getting what he wants, and his theatrics are often entertaining'

Conrad Black speaks in paragraphs. This week, he delivered his most recent spoken-word essay from a bland Toronto videoconferencing centre to an audience of eager parliamentarians in Ottawa. Black, in his appearance at the standing committee on foreign affairs and international trade, offered a subdued but insistent defence of President Donald Trump’s caustic approach to negotiation. And the committee wasn’t about to stop Black mid-argument.

If you’ve read the House of Commons rules, you know that committees operate according to various rules, and that everyone around the table agrees to limits on the length of questions and answers. More than a year ago, this particular committee agreed that on their first round of questions to witnesses, questioners from each party were allotted six minutes each. After that, the buzzer goes and the next MP steps in. On recordings, you can hear the timer start.

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But those rules obviously weren’t created for Conrad Black. Liberal MP John McKay hoovered up two of his first six minutes with a preamble about Trump’s unpredictability as a negotiator. He then ceded the floor to Black, looking dapper and ready to speak. Nearly a thousand words and seven minutes later (that’s three minutes past when the buzzer should have sounded), and after he managed to comment on Trump’s style as it relates to Chicago real estate and high-stakes negotiations with Turkey, Russia and China, McKay jumped in and was then cut off himself. Chalk one up for the media baron.

Check out some highlights of Black’s response below, but scroll further for the whole answer.

On Trump as business partner in Chicago: “He did engage even then in the sort of tactical maneuvering you referred to, and he would take outrageous positions opposite certain contractors, the building trades unions, and negotiating zoning changes with the municipal government—and the Democratic Party has been in power since 1929, so they’re pretty well entrenched.

“And the ethical standards, both politically and in the building trades unions in Chicago, are not the highest I’ve ever seen, and his techniques are extremely aggressive, subject to apparent change, but always towards an unchanging purpose—that he’ll get a good deal for himself. In this case, we were on the same side; he was negotiating for both of us.

“He did a very, very good job. He came in exactly on budget, exactly on time.”

On Trump’s tactics as a negotiator: My impression of him is he doesn’t change his views as much as one thinks, but he does alter the mood and the ambience according to the level of his pleasure or displeasure with the other side. Some of it is preparatory, just flustering people and muddying the waters before substantive negotiations begin. Some of it is just agitating for the purpose of keeping the people he’s negotiating with off-balance.

On the Trump campaign colluding with Russia: It was nonsense that he was particularly involved with any collusion with the Russians. The allegation that there was any Russian collusion from the Trump campaign is absolute bunk and will come down around the heads of the Democrats like a toilet seat.

On the American strategy in Syria: The American goal would be to act on the fact that it can offer a great deal more to Russia than its alliance with Iran does. And that there’s not any great natural disagreement now between Russia and the United States, and what is needed in Syria is some kind of confederation where Assad runs the Alawite part of it, and the Western-sponsored proteges there have autonomy, and the four million displaced Syrians can be relocated durably.

On Trump the entertainer: I wouldn’t be overly occupied with the atmospherics. He has his techniques, but he is not all over the map. He knows what he wants, and he’s quite good at getting what he wants, and his theatrics are often entertaining, and they can be appreciated for that. But they’re just tactics.


U.S. President Donald Trump welcomes Egypt’s President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi at the White House in Washington, U.S., April 3, 2017. (Carlos Barria/Reuters)

Transcript: Conrad Black on Trump’s approach to foreign negotiations

We had him as a business partner in Chicago, where we owned the Sun-Times newspaper, and I don’t know if the committee knows that city well, but we had a low-rise building right downtown, right behind the Wrigley building, right near the Tribune tower, so it was prime development land right on the Chicago River.

We put it out for bids. His won, and my American directors, a very eminent group [including] Dr. [Henry] Kissinger, said, “Hang on to your wallet, he’s a scoundrel,” and so forth. And we were very careful. But he did engage even then in the sort of tactical maneuvering you referred to, and he would take outrageous positions opposite certain contractors, the building trades unions, and negotiating zoning changes with the municipal government—and the Democratic Party has been in power since 1929, so they’re pretty well entrenched.

And the ethical standards, both politically and in the building trades unions in Chicago, are not the highest I’ve ever seen, and his techniques are extremely aggressive, subject to apparent change, but always towards an unchanging purpose—that he’ll get a good deal for himself. In this case, we were on the same side; he was negotiating for both of us.

He did a very, very good job. He came in exactly on budget, exactly on time. Though it’s a tough city, Chicago is proud of its architectural heritage—the city of Frank Lloyd Wright and so on—and he produced a design that was very widely admired, and he had it filled with absolutely top-grade tenants well before it opened. So it was just completely successful.

That obviously is no guide to how he’s going to negotiate with North Korea or Canada, but maybe it is partly a guide. My impression of him is he doesn’t change his views as much as one thinks, but he does alter the mood and the ambience according to the level of his pleasure or displeasure with the other side. Some of it is preparatory, just flustering people and muddying the waters before substantive negotiations begin. Some of it is just agitating for the purpose of keeping the people he’s negotiating with off-balance.

But he doesn’t move around in terms of what he wants that much, and I don’t think he has particularly with Putin or the Chinese. I think he’s quite clear that relations with China have been altered somewhat because the aggressive nuclear development of the North Koreans has moved that issue well above any other that could be contentious between the United States and China, and he quite properly responds to events. And that takes precedence over whatever reservations the United States might have about, for example, monetary policy in China.

In the case of the Russians, it was nonsense that he was particularly involved with any collusion with the Russians. The allegation that there was any Russian collusion from the Trump campaign is absolute bunk and will come down around the heads of the Democrats like a toilet seat. But the fact is he recognizes Russia as an eminent nationality, but he doesn’t recognize that it’s anything like the force that it was when it was the Soviet Union, when it was more than twice its population, military parity roughly with the United States, and the vast Communist espionage and agitprop apparatus all around the world. But he believes it has to be treated not as a pariah, but as one of the world’s important countries.

My guess is, for what it’s worth, that the best indicator we’ve had of what can be done between those countries was in the meeting that took place in early March between the chairman of the joint chiefs of Russia, Turkey and the United States. The plan clearly was to make Turkey the incumbent power in the Middle East, recognized by the Americans and the Russians, and to replace and reduce Iranian influence. And the American goal would be to act on the fact that it can offer a great deal more to Russia than its alliance with Iran does. And that there’s not any great natural disagreement now between Russia and the United States, and what is needed in Syria is some kind of confederation where Assad runs the Alawite part of it, and the Western-sponsored proteges there have autonomy, and the four million displaced Syrians can be relocated durably.

In Ukraine, it appears that what might happen is the Americans would be prepared to acquiesce, and the resumption of Crimea, which Russia had up until [1954], but the Russians would have to stop meddling in irredentist affairs in Ukraine and the Baltic states. And in exchange for that, the U.S. would relax the sanctions. Now, that appears to be—it’s my intuition, but not a completely uninformed intuition—that that’s where they’re headed.

But there’s no inconsistency in that, and the interruption with the air raid on Syria, the firing of the 59 cruise missiles, was a specific point indicating that the U.S. simply would not tolerate the continued use of Sarin gas on civilians in Syria after the Russians purported with the Syrians to have removed all such gas from Syria. But my answer, I’m starting to be loquacious, but my answer is, I wouldn’t be overly occupied with the atmospherics. He has his techniques, but he is not all over the map. He knows what he wants, and he’s quite good at getting what he wants, and his theatrics are often entertaining, and they can be appreciated for that. But they’re just tactics.