In the early days of the Trump administration, it was a unique challenge for major Canadian players such as Foreign Affairs Minister Chrystia Freeland and Washington Ambassador David MacNaughton to deal with the U.S. President and his team.
As an illustration, at an Oval Office meeting on the subject of trade, it became amply apparent via Donald Trump’s remarks that he didn’t know the difference between tariffs and quotas. The Canadians weren’t impolitic enough to roll their eyes. They couldn’t help but notice one of Mr. Trump’s top advisers doing so.
The players from the Trudeau team weren’t all that shocked. They’d followed his campaign. They knew that his strength did not lie in the area of intellectual and policy depth. They knew there would be a mountainous learning curve. But like most everyone else, they expected that, with time, there would be some normalization.
It hasn’t happened. What they didn’t count on were the changes to Mr. Trump’s coterie. Initially, he was surrounded by advisers whose worldview wasn’t so radically different from their own.
Secretary of State Rex Tillerson was one. He countered the President’s America First tendencies. He was a restraining influence people like Ambassador MacNaughton could respect. But soon after a productive session with him, Mr. MacNaughton turned on the news to discover Mr. Tillerson was gone, replaced by hardliner Mike Pompeo.
On another day, the ambassador had dinner with National Security Adviser H.R. McMaster, who, like Mr. Tillerson, tended toward a globalist’s view. They had a good rapport. As it happened, the next day, Mr. McMaster was gone, replaced by hardliner John Bolton.
This week, the ambassador met with Defence Secretary James Mattis. The thought plagued him before the meeting that its aftermath would find him out the door as well. And it well might. The secretary’s pragmatic views have created a worrisome distance between him and the President.
Yet another good guy from the Canadian perspective, economic adviser Gary Cohn, who butted heads with the protectionists, resigned. In came Fox Newser Larry Kudlow to replace him. Protectionist wingnut Peter Navarro was given more clout as well.
Though the tempestuous Trump often acts autocratically, the influence of his team has been pronounced. With the new gang has come the steel and aluminum tariffs, the threat of auto tariffs, the bashing of NATO and the nonsensical notion that Canadian steel imports constitute a threat to national security.
On the Trump team, there’s the odd exception, one being Treasury Secretary Steve Mnuchin, who Ottawa players find reasonable to deal with. He is not an ideologue. As for Mr. Trump, channels are still open, even after the G7 blow-up. On policy, he didn’t have many fixed addresses when he began his presidential run. It’s still a matter of who crowds his ear. The globalists had the edge, the hardliners won him back. But the good news now is that he shows signs of changing again.
His advisers on the trade file aren’t looking so good now. The trade war has provided enough evidence of backfiring that he is backpedalling. The bailout for farmers announced this week is one signal. Even bigger is the new tentative deal on trade reached with the European Union.
EU negotiators were having just as difficult a time with the Trump reactionaries as was the Trudeau government. But they hit on something to win him over; concessions on soybeans and natural gas that allowed Mr. Trump to pronounce a victory of sorts.
In any big negotiation there has to be give and take, which prompts the question: What is Canada’s big give in order to get a deal? Is there one? If so, we’re not saying. Government officials were dodging the question again this week. They’re full of complaints about the Americans being obstinate, but where is evidence of them being conciliatory?
U.S. Trade Representative Bob Lighthizer hasn’t noticed any. He said Thursday that, in addition to the EU, Mexico was showing signs of compromise. The country that hasn’t, he said, was Canada.
Now may be the time, with Mr. Trump facing midterm elections and showing some willingness to strike a deal, for the Trudeau government to do what the EU did. Make the big play.