Is it time to stop acting as if Donald Trump were an acceptable and legitimate national leader? That is a key question this week for Prime Minister Justin Trudeau.
On Tuesday, the U.S. President crossed a line that is one of the key safety barriers of democracy. By abruptly firing the head of an agency, the Federal Bureau of Investigation, that was responsible for investigating Mr. Trump's election campaign for alleged collusion with Russian officials, the President jeopardized the rule of law. By doing so just as that investigation was getting uncomfortably close to the White House – and apparently with the goal of shutting it down – he ensured that the rule of law, and the sovereignty of the people, will be perpetually insecure.
Many referred to this week's events as a tilt into arbitrary rule. General Michael Hayden, the former head of the Central Intelligence Agency and the National Security Agency, put it bluntly on Wednesday: "I'm trying to avoid the conclusion that we've become Nicaragua."
Against that backdrop, Mr. Trudeau's collegial meetings with the President and cheery roundtables with the President's increasingly powerful daughter appear off-putting. They were never very comfortable, and a lot of veteran Liberals, including some in government, have told me they disapprove of the Prime Minister's "enabler-in-chief" approach.
But there were good reasons why a Canadian leader might have wanted to play ball with Mr. Trump – at least at first. The question is whether those reasons still apply.
First, Mr. Trudeau and his staff believed that Canada could act as a force of moderation. Through quiet persuasion and example, Canadians could prevent the very worst from happening as the United States endured its worst moment.
That theory was given new credence with reports that Mr. Trudeau was responsible for talking Mr. Trump out of his plan to cancel the North American free-trade agreement on his 100th day in office. According to one report this week, more moderate members of the White House staff were so horrified at the prospect that they persuaded Mr. Trudeau to get on the phone and disabuse Mr. Trump of the idea.
If that's the case, then the months of cringe-inducing diplomacy may have borne some fruit. Yet they didn't prevent Mr. Trump launching new trade wars over softwood lumber and dairy – and they haven't quelled rumours that Mr. Trump is still prepared to pull the plug on NAFTA.
Second, Mr. Trudeau probably wanted to make sure that when the Canada-U.S. relationship falls apart – as it likely will – it will be Mr. Trump's doing, not something to be blamed on Canadian intransigence or awkwardness, such as prime minister Stephen Harper's falling out with Barack Obama over the Keystone XL pipeline. A Trump rage could hurt Canadian security and well-being badly.
Third, he likely wanted to reverse the old perception, dating back to the 1970s, that Liberals are anti-American and that only Tories can manage Washington. Mr. Harper did much to erase that image with his turn against Washington. Mr. Trudeau has made that point well enough by now.
On the other hand, Mr. Trudeau is taking a number of risks. He risks becoming a key figure in Mr. Trump's campaign to appear to be a legitimate world leader and to popularize a form of politics to which the Western world has spent seven decades saying, "Never again."
He risks making Mr. Trump's politics appear to be something other than a disaster to voters in other countries. Did France's Marine Le Pen double her party's electoral outcome last weekend because Mr. Trump made it seem like the politics of intolerance produce results?
At worst, if Mr. Trump tilts further into demagoguery, Mr. Trudeau risks appearing to have sided against the American people by empowering a leader that the vast majority of them are opposed to and offended by. It could put Mr. Trudeau in a bloc of world leaders who are contributing to the problem, not the solution.
At some point, Mr. Trudeau will need to show the world that he knows not just how to stroke and cajole, but also how to denounce and condemn. Whether this week's abuses should push him over that line is not the question – it is whether he has drawn such a line at all.