Support at home helps Canada’s Trudeau stay the course

  • President Donald Trump, left, is greeted by Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau and his wife Sophie Gregoire Trudeau outside the Hotel Fairmont, Friday, in Quebec, Canada. tns photo

Bloomberg News
Tuesday, June 12, 2018

OTTAWA, Canada — 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 will 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 news 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 Tuesday, saying he used language that was “inappropriate.”

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 news 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 Germany’s Angela Merkel, Britain’s Theresa May and France’s 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.”

Another thing buoying Trudeau has been the near-universal Canadian response to Trump’s comments. The country has rallied together, with public opinion showing there’s wide support for Canada’s retaliatory tariffs.

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 opposition New Democratic Party, whose legislative chief Ruth Ellen Brosseau added: “While Canadians stand together, President Trump stands alone.”

“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.

While Trudeau has a wide range of counterstrike 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. The U.S. is still, by far, Canada’s top customer and new ties would take years to build.

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.