Trump And Trudeau’s First Meeting — What Happened (And What Didn’t)

Mr. Trudeau goes to Trumpland
Prime Minister Justin Trudeau about to shake President Donald Trump’s Hand (Kevin Lamarque /Reuters)

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau about to shake President Donald Trump’s Hand (Kevin Lamarque /Reuters)

By Spencer Lachmanec

On Monday, US President Donald Trump and Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau met for the first time. The two men have diametrically opposed public personas and starkly different governmental agendas. Juxtaposed to each other, the pair seem like a heavy-handed caricature of the stereotypical differences between Americans and Canadians. Trump is the crude, loud-mouthed American business tycoon. Trudeau is the fluently bi-lingual, Canadian nice guy. Despite the stark differences between them — both real and imagined — Trump and Trudeau’s first meeting seems to have went well. The Prime Minister called it a “very productive meeting.” Trump’s press secretary, Sean Spicer, called it an “incredibly productive” meeting with “Prime Minister Joe Trudeau of Canada.”

Following their private discussions, Trump and Trudeau attended a photo-op/roundtable on issues facing women business leaders. The leaders then held a joint press conference where they were focused on trade, security, and the history of the US-Canada relationship. They emphasized their mutual interests but hints of potential future conflict emerged.

Much of the press conference was filled with vague statements about shared values and collective interests and references to well-known history. The focus was on the economy and security. Unsurprisingly, Trump brought-up ISIS and terrorism. Also unsurprisingly, Trudeau — in typical Canadian fashion — brought-up the weather. Overall, the presser was short on substance but the general theme of it was that the US and Canada have a “historic friendship” that both governments intend to strengthen.

Maybe NAFTA isn’t “the worst trade deal maybe ever signed anywhere” after all

Although the economy and trade were central to both Trump and Trudeau’s messages, neither of them mentioned the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) until reporter Richard Latendresse asked them about it. In response to Latendresse’s questions, Trump called US trade relations with Canada “very outstanding.” Although he claimed the problems with NAFTA are mostly related to the “extremely unfair transaction” with Mexico, he stated his intention to renegotiate the US-Canada trade relationship. “We’ll be tweaking it,” Trump said. “We’ll be doing certain things that are going to benefit both of our countries.”

What exactly “tweaking it” and “doing certain things” means is unclear but it is certainly a deescalation of the extreme NAFTA bashing Trump engaged in during the election. On the campaign trail, he proclaimed that “NAFTA is the worst trade deal maybe ever signed anywhere, but certainly ever signed in this country.”

Although NAFTA’s future under Trump is still uncertain, many of corporate Canada’s bosses expressed their relief after the meeting. Flavio Volpe, president of the Automotive Parts Manufacturers’ Association, told The Canadian Press, “We were pleasantly surprised that the president would have used as many superlatives when discussing his view on Canada as a trading partner.”

Corporate Canada’s relief does not seem to be just wishful thinking. After the meeting, the White House and the Prime Minister’s Office released a joint statement that acknowledged “profound shared economic interests.”

Trump’s comments during the presser also seemed to indicate that his “America First” agenda will not necessarily exclude Canada:

“We understand that both of our countries are stronger when we join forces in matters of international commerce. Having more jobs and trade right here in North America is better for both the United States and is also much better for Canada. We should co-ordinate closely — and we will co-ordinate closely — to protect jobs in our hemisphere and keep wealth on our continent, and to keep everyone safe.”


Trudeau sidesteps Muslim ban and other areas of disagreement

Trudeau’s response to Trump’s Muslim ban won him the praise of many American liberals. A since-edited piece in The Washington Post called the prime minister “a leader of the liberal global resistance to President Trump.”

Face to face with President Trump, Trudeau didn’t live-up to the US media hype. Throughout the press conference the prime minister looked at pains to avoid the Muslim ban and any other potentially contentious issue. The closest he came to criticizing Trump’s policies was when he said Canada’s responsibility is to be a “positive example in the world.” Implicit in this statement, of course, is the idea that the United States isn’t a positive example.

Trump wasn’t quite as careful at steering clear of controversy. Tonda MacCharles asked if, considering the the US and Canadian differing approaches to immigration and refugee policy, Trump was “confident the northern border is secure?” Trump bluntly and truthfully replied, “You can never be totally confident” but then went on to not-so-truthfully defend his stance on border security. “I will tell you, we are getting such praise for our stance and it’s a stance of common sense,” Trump claimed. In reality, his “stance” was met with protests across the US (and the world) and struck down by the courts.

Climate change isn’t a thing anymore

Climate change was conspicuously absent from the discussions. There was not one mention of the issue in either the press conference or the joint statement released afterwards.

Trump has claimed that climate change is a Chinese hoax created to destroy the US economy — and he has surrounded himself with advisers and cabinet officials who hold similarly fictional views of the issue. Trudeau, meanwhile, has introduced a Canadian carbon pricing regime and participated in the Paris agreement. The deafening silence on climate change is likely due to Trudeau’s apparently overwhelming desire to not offend the President in any way.

Although there was silence on combating the climate crisis, there was mention of advancing fossil fuels projects. The joint statement says, “As the process continues for the Keystone XL pipeline, we remain committed to moving forward on energy infrastructure projects that will create jobs while respecting the environment.”

Keystone XL is perhaps the one issue where Trudeau has more in common with Trump than with the Barrack Obama administration. Faced with environmental concerns and growing public opposition, Obama vetoed the project. Both Trump and Trudeau support Keystone XL — and have since before they came to power.

President “grab them by the pussy” and Prime Minister “I am a feminist” team-up to empower women in business

Nobody has more respect for women than I do

— Donald Trump

The roundtable discussion on women in business was tied into the announcement of the Canada-United States Council for Advancement of Women Entrepreneurs and Business Leaders, an “initiative to promote the growth of women-owned enterprises.” Trump’s daughter Ivanka Trump and a number of female CEOs from the US and Canada took part in the event.

The Canadian Press’s Joanna Smith reports that Trudeau’s chief of staff Katie Telford proposed the roundtable. Nelson Wiseman, a politics professor at the University of Toronto, suggests that this was an attempt to take the attention off NAFTA.

For Team Trump, the event was an opportunity to soften the President’s image. As Wiseman points out, “he’s got a problem with women.” This is putting it mildly. The “grab them by the pussy” President’s misogyny has sparked condemnation from across the political spectrum and sparked the Women’s March on Washington, which, along with solidarity demonstrations across the United States, was reportedly the largest protest in US history.

Trudeau’s decision to collaborate with Trump on a project ostensibly aimed at advancing women’s rights was not met with universal praise. During Question Period in Canada’s parliament on Monday, the left-leaning New Democratic Party’s critic for status of women, Sheila Malcolmson, criticized the prime minister for not addressing the elephant in the room — Trump’s history of sexism and mistreatment of women (which includes numerous sexual assault allegations).

Trump-Trudeau meeting sparks debate and (temporarily) unifies Liberals and Conservatives

Debate over the meeting engulfed Canadian politics in the days leading-up to the event. Canada’s two biggest opposition parties — the Conservatives and the New Democrats — offered conflicting advice to the prime minister.

The Conservative’s trade critic Gerry Ritz suggested that Trudeau take an extremely cautious approach to his meeting with Trump. “Make a point if it’s there to be made,” Ritz said, “but don’t go overboard on pushing back. This is not the time or place to do that.”

He advised Trudeau to “listen a lot, smile and nod,” and to remember that Trump seems to have “very thin skin.” He also criticized the prime minister’s recent tweets about Trump’s Muslim ban as “bordering on snide.”

It’s always been good politics to have a fight with our southern neighbour, but at the end of the day, that’s our major trading partner. We have to work with them on a day-by-day, hour-by-hour business.

— Gerry Ritz, Conservative Party trade critic

Over the weekend, as Trudeau’s visit to Washington came closer, Conservative politicians gave the Liberal Party what Mike Blanchfield (of The Canadian Press) described as an “unprecedented show of solidarity.” Interim Conservative leader Rona Ambrose sent an open letter to Trudeau calling for a bi-partisan approach to relations with the Trump-Pence administration and offering the assistance of her party’s members with past experience dealing with the US government. Even some candidates in the Conservative leadership race backed off from criticizing the Trudeau government. In an interview with MSNBC, leadership hopeful Kevin O’Leary refrained from attacking Trudeau’s comments on the Muslim ban — and instead called them a “statement that all Canadians believe.”

The Conservatives were not the only ones pushing for a united front in Canada’s dealings with Trump. Foreign Affairs Minister Chrystia Freeland wrote to both Ambrose and Mulcair asking for their collaboration. Trudeau consulted with the premiers of Canada’s provinces. The prime minister also had a “number of discussions” with former ambassador to the US Derek Burney, who served as chief-of-staff to Brian Mulroney’s Progressive Conservative government. His conversations with Burney seemed to be top-of-mind for Trudeau on Monday. During Trump and Trudeau’s joint-press conference meeting, the prime minster cited the Mulroney government’s “historic” Air Quality Agreement with the George H.W. Bush administration as a good example of US-Canada cooperation.

Not everyone agreed on the emerging Liberal-Conservative consensus on dealing with Trump, however. New Democrat member of parliament Nathan Cullen advised Trudeau to go the opposite direction. Cullen said that Trump “has proven himself to be a bully repeatedly” and called on Trudeau to stand up to him: “I think he has to speak truth to power. Simply lying down and hoping that he doesn’t notice us is not the strategy to use with Mr. Trump. We’ve seen people try to placate him in the past — other Republicans, Democrats — it doesn’t work.”

Cullen’s tough stance is not surprising. At a January 27 press conference, New Democratic Party leader Tom Mulcair condemned Trump’s behavior as “fascist.” On January 31, during a emergency debate on the United States’ Muslim travel ban in Canada’s parliament, Mulcair denounced what he called the Canadian government’s “inaction” on the issue. He directly challenged Trudeau to confront Trump about the ban: “Will the prime minister denounce on behalf of all Canadians the Muslim ban when he meets with the president of the United States? Yes or no?”

It is always the role of a Canadian prime minister to stand up to racism and hatred.

— Tom Mulcair, New Democratic Party leader

At the press conference with Trump on Monday, Trudeau took a not very subtle jab at those demanding he confront Trump: “The last thing Canadians expect is for me to come down and lecture another country on how they choose to govern themselves.”

Trudeau’s soft approach to Trump is not surprising. Deference to the US president is the norm for the Canadian government, but there has been notable exceptions to this rule. Most recently, Jean Chrétien’s Liberal government refused to join George W. Bush’s “coalition of willing” for the invasion of Iraq.

During his 15 years in the Prime Minister’s Office, Justin Trudeau’s father Pierre Trudeau was also not afraid to anger his US counterparts. To the chagrin of Cold War hawks, he straightened Canada’s relationships with China and Cuba — and even forged a still-controversial friendship with Fidel Castro. In 1983, a Reagan administration official reportedly referred to his work on nuclear arms negotiations “as akin to the pot-induced behavior of an erratic leftist.”

This rare but reoccurring Canadian tradition of defying Washington suggests that although it is seriously premature to call Justin Trudeau “a leader of the liberal global resistance to President Trump,” the potential is there. Whether Trudeau ever lives-up to this potential remains to be seen.

News // Canada / Donald Trump / Justin Trudeau / Politics