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Support at Home Helps Trudeau Stay Course Amid Trump Threats

June 13, 2018 by Josh Wingrove and Greg Quinn


If Donald Trump was counting on Justin Trudeau to bend to U.S. trade demands after a series of verbal attacks on the Canadian prime minister, it’s not working so far.

Trudeau is staying out of the fray, trying to forge ahead on a revised North American Free Trade Agreement as his country and key allies rally around him in the face of unprecedented criticism from his neighbor and chief trading partner.

“From day one, we have said that we expected moments of drama and that we would keep calm and carry on throughout those moments,” Canadian Foreign Minister Chrystia Freeland said Tuesday in Ottawa. She’ll visit Washington beginning Wednesday, speaking to the Senate Foreign Relations Committee and possibly meeting with U.S. Trade Representative Robert Lighthizer.

U.S.-Canada relations have rarely been more strained. Trudeau’s closing press conference at the Group of Seven leaders’ summit in Quebec this weekend sparked a flurry of reactions from the Trump administration after the prime minister said the U.S. decision to impose tariffs on Canadian steel and aluminum on national security grounds was “insulting.”

Though Trudeau had made these comments many times before, Trump and his advisers quickly responded. The president tweeted from Air Force One that Trudeau was “dishonest,” and weak. His advisers went further, with White House trade adviser Peter Navarro saying there was a “ special place in hell” for leaders like Trudeau who negotiate with Trump in bad faith. Navarro apologized on Tuesday, saying he used language that was “ inappropriate.”

Singapore Jab

Trump took another poke at Trudeau from Singapore after his summit on North Korea. “I have a good relationship with Justin Trudeau — I really did, other than he had a news conference that he had because he assumed I was in an airplane,” the U.S. president said at a press conference. “He learned. That’s going to cost a lot of money for the people of Canada.”

Several leaders from the G-7 meeting — including Angela Merkel, Theresa May and Emmanuel Macron — either expressed support for Trudeau or criticized Trump. “There is a special place in heaven for Justin Trudeau,” European Council President Donald Tusk said.

“Trump’s disruptiveness is one thing, but his treatment of Canada and other U.S. allies is unprecedented,” said Roland Paris, a University of Ottawa professor and former Trudeau foreign policy adviser. “Nevertheless, it remains the job of the government to find ways of working constructively with this chaotic man, while vigorously defending Canadian interests.”

Domestic Support

Another thing buoying Trudeau has been the near-universal Canadian response to Trump’s comments. The country has rallied together, with public opinion polling showing there’s wide support for Canada’s retaliatory tariffs against the steel and aluminum duties that will kick in for some U.S. goods on July 1.

Federal lawmakers unanimously passed a motion Monday saying they stand in solidarity on trade issues and “reject disparaging ad hominem statements by U.S. officials which do a disservice to bilateral relations.” The motion was proposed by the New Democratic Party, whose legislative chief Ruth Ellen Brosseau added: “While Canadians stand together, President Trump stands alone.”

Showing support for industry amid the turmoil, Trudeau met Tuesday with a group of farmers in Ottawa who benefit from the supply management system that has drawn the ire of Trump. He’s railed many times in recent days against Canadian import duties of 270 percent on dairy. Yet that subject is now politically untouchable in Canada: The opposition Conservatives late Tuesday stripped lawmaker Maxime Bernier, an outspoken critic of the current dairy system, of his shadow-cabinet duties.

Read more about how Canadian dairy tariffs set Trump off at the G-7

“We should not be thinking about this in terms of people rallying around Trudeau, but around the office,” said pollster Nik Nanos, chairman of Nanos Research Group. “The one thing politically it does mean: Now they have a clear scapegoat if Nafta negotiations go sideways, they will be able to blame Donald Trump.”

Still, winning the public-relations war may not be enough for Trudeau to avoid additional U.S. trade penalties. At the same time he was attacking the Canadian prime minister on Twitter, Trump reiterated his decision to have the U.S. Commerce Department review tariffs on all auto imports. That would devastate the Canadian car industry, which counts on the U.S. for 85 percent of its sales, according to industry groups.

Trade Surplus

It’s not clear what new costs to Canada Trump was referring to in Singapore. Under his administration, the U.S. has already clobbered its top export market on trade, running a $2.7 billion surplus, according to the Bureau of Economic Analysis. It has imposed new tariffs on Canadian steel, aluminum and lumber, is considering tariffs on cars and is seeking a rewrite of Nafta. While Trudeau has a wide range of counter-strike options available, Canada remains vulnerable to a trade war.

The northern nation is trying to pivot away from the U.S., but it’s not easy. Canada has signed a trade deal with the EU and is part of the Trans Pacific Partnership, a deal Trudeau helped salvage after Trump jettisoned it upon taking power. The prime minister is also nationalizing a pipeline to reduce reliance on American buyers. But the U.S. is still, by far, Canada’s top customer and new ties would take years to build.

Since Trump’s election, Trudeau’s government has poured energy and time into building relationships with the White House, with Congress and throughout the U.S. private sector, hoping to rally enough support to keep Trump from upending the continental trading system. Most analysts are urging them to stay the course.

“I think we’ve simply got to continue and expand that effort that’s been developed,” Former Canadian Foreign Minister Lloyd Axworthy told the Canadian Broadcasting Corp. on Tuesday.

Trudeau, meanwhile, can look back to his father’s legacy for support. Richard Nixon was once caught on tape disparaging Trudeau’s father, former Prime Minister Pierre Trudeau. “I’ve been called worse things by better people,” the elder Trudeau replied.

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