In the sunlit White House Rose Garden, the movers and shakers assembled for a rare event. A presidential speech cum news conference with Canada as the feature attraction.
The turnout for the Monday announcement of a new continental trade accord was big. Cabinet secretaries, trade stakeholders and, of course, the scribes, the enemies of the people. Among the dignitaries enveloping Donald Trump on the dais were Treasury Secretary Steve Mnuchin in his hitman shades, a glum-looking Homeland Security Secretary Kirstjen Nielsen, whom the President has reportedly threatened to fire, and the expressionless tall guy, son-in-law Jared Kushner.
They and the rest would remain immobile for almost 90 minutes. That’s how long the outlier President rambles on these days. In New York last week he staged a rollicking 80-minute question-and-answer session, a tour de force to some, a tour de farce to others. Even by his own lofty standards as the pharaoh of falsehoods, the outpouring of hyperbole and bluster was memorable.
White House strategists found that it worked with the rabble, however, and decided why not go for a big show on the Canada deal? Initially a few questions came his way about Prime Minister Justin Trudeau. “He’s a professional,” the President allowed. “I’m a professional.”
Though most experts saw the new trade agreement as just a modest upgrade on the old one, Mr. Trump spoke like it was the greatest advancement in humankind since the Magna Carta. But unsurprisingly, the American journalists weren’t keen on details about trade with Canada, powdered-milk exports and the like. They wanted juicier fare. They pressed Mr. Trump to move on to the Brett Kavanaugh opera.
He held them off for a while. The trade agreement, after all, is a campaign promise he kept. It’s one of his more identifiable accomplishments to date and he’ll be touting it all the way to midterm election day – which is only a month away.
One of the reasons the deal came about was the election calendar. Mr. Trump would rather have the new pact in his quiver than not. So his negotiating team dropped long-standing demands like doing away with a dispute-settlement mechanism in order to get the agreement.
But as is so often the case, Mr. Trump’s grasshopper-like attention span won’t allow him to stay focused on one subject. And so at his sprawling news conference he let the good-news headline on the trade pact slip away.
Allowing questions about Mr. Kavanaugh, his Supreme Court nominee, Mr. Trump surprisingly called on an ABC reporter, Cecilia Vega, whom he does not like. Look, he said, pointing to her, “she’s like in a state of shock” at being called. He thought he heard her say the word “thinking,” whereupon he responded, ”You’re not thinking. You never do.”
It was a cheap, degrading putdown, fuelling the suspicion that Mr. Trump has a prejudice against women in the media. Many recall his vile cracks about Megyn Kelly and Mika Brzezinski. He isn’t so disdainful toward male reporters. To her credit, Ms. Vega didn’t flinch. She held a firm stare.
Mr. Trump gave headline writers more fodder when, in talking about Mr. Kavanaugh’s drinking proclivities, he mentioned he never touched the stuff. “Can you imagine if I had, what a mess I’d be,” he said. It was a good moment of self-deprecating humour that drew laughs and which held a lot of truth. The notion of Mr. Trump, riotous when sober, getting into the sauce is truly alarming.
When questions returned to trade, he didn’t mention that he had to make last-minute concessions to Ottawa to get the deal. But these were more in the realm of his team withdrawing a couple of its big demands than actually giving Canada anything.
It’s an area where Canadian negotiators may well have been outfoxed. At the outset of talks last year they didn’t put forward a set of big new asks from Canada. They therefore lacked bargaining tools and ended up playing defence against Washington’s aggressive proposals.
Compared to the old one, the new deal isn’t such a big deal. But Mr. Trump will be making it such on the campaign trail. His main boasting point will be the great work he’s done for the economy, and the trade agreement will be brandished as a leading example.
He’s trailing in the polls and needs a lot of help. The deal with Canada gives him some.