Ontario Premier Doug Ford arrives in Washington on Wednesday to confer with Canadian officials on NAFTA negotiations.
Justin Trudeau’s negotiators had requested to have the latest round of NAFTA talks take place on their own turf this time. Better, they thought, than again rushing down as colonial petitioners to the American capital.
But U.S. trade negotiator Bob Lighthizer said no. And that was that. His side’s got the power. Canadians? Nice folk. Americans without guns.
As for Mr. Ford, it’s good he’s involved. Even better if he was able to get an audience with some of the big shooters in the White House. Being a populist, he speaks their language.
That said though, there’s no one going to change the nativist tariff-worshipping ways of Donald Trump and his hard-woven political base. The U.S. President bared his tariff teeth again this week, imposing US$200-billion worth on China, escalating the trade war.
Canada may yet get a decent NAFTA agreement, but even if it does, the Trump team is going to be belligerent on trade issues going forward.
To get the measure of these guys, Premier Ford would do well to read the many passages on trade in Fear, Bob Woodward’s penetrating hell-on-wheels portrait of the White House.
We knew there was a lot of infighting. But not the scale of the seething feud between the globalists and hardcore America-Firsters, or who Steve Bannon calls the “hammerheads.” It was a fair fight initially with several tough-minded globalists weighing in. But they were battered, sent packing.
One of the men in Canada’s corner on NAFTA was top economic adviser Gary Cohn who, as has been reported, snuck papers calling for the termination of NAFTA from the President’s desk.
In the Oval Office one day, as Mr. Woodward tells it, he got so exasperated that he told Mr. Trump and trade adviser Peter Navarro, “If you just shut the fuck up and listen, you might learn something.”
Mr. Cohn, an optimist in holding such hopes, was trying to teach his listeners a thing or two about trade realities and the view, as he told them, of 99.999 per cent of economists that trade deficits were not a serious problem.
Mr. Navarro is suspected of getting most of his trade expertise from flat-earth-society manuals. He had set Mr. Cohn off by calling him a “Wall Street establishment idiot.” Mr. Trump was on the same page, often referring to Mr. Cohn as an “[expletive deleted] globalist.”
Not backing down, Mr. Cohn told the two men their smokestack view of the American economy was wrong-headed, outdated. No one wanted to work on assembly lines any more. “Eighty per cent of our GDP is in the service sector.” As for deficits, “if we do things right, our trade deficit’s going to get bigger.”
The Trump response he got was, “I don’t want to hear that."
The President was left briefing books on the subject that he never cracked open. He wouldn’t arrive in the Oval Office until about 11 a.m. after watching TV and firing off hell-raising tweets which aides couldn’t stop. Commenting on the Twitter count being doubled to 280 characters, Mr. Trump said it was “a bit of shame because I was the Ernest Hemingway of 140 characters.”
Between globalists and hammerheads things came to a crunch on the question of steel imports being a threat to U.S. national security. On the open-markets side with Mr. Cohn was a key player, Rob Porter. The two of them showed Mr. Trump a study, from the Pentagon no less, which concluded that “U.S. military steel usage represents less than one-half per cent of the total U.S. steel demand.” That should have put the question to rest.
But Mr. Navarro and Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross surreptitiously arranged for some steel executives to put the case for tariffs to Mr. Trump and got an order signed for the steel and aluminum tariffs for Canada and other countries.
That was too much for Mr. Cohn. He resigned. At the same time, Mr. Porter had to leave over abuse allegations from two of his former wives. National Security Adviser H.R. McMaster left as had another moderate, Secretary of State Rex Tillerson.
On trade there was hardly anyone left to loosen the President’s brain jam. There still isn’t.
Good luck, Mr. Ford.