Skip to main content

Following his misadventures on the India subcontinent, Justin Trudeau has to restore his once-lustrous international image. Donald Trump is his ticket.

The U.S. President has upped his reputation for running a gong show with his admission that he had no idea what he was talking about when telling the Prime Minister the United States runs a trade deficit with Canada.

He just made it up, the President admits on an audio feed from a private fundraiser on Wednesday. Didn’t know what he was talking about.

The confession, a rather unique one in the annals of relations between presidents and prime ministers, is a big boost for Ottawa negotiators in the trade debate, undercutting the credibility of the American posture. The Canadian side has been making the point about the U.S. having a surplus repeatedly over the last year. Washington has twisted statistics and data to claim otherwise.

The President is well known for fictional accounts. He averages, according to trackers, several falsehoods a day. So in that sense, the revelation, the added evidence that he is not terribly tethered to realities, comes as no great surprise. The line about Ronald Reagan – “If you walked through his deepest thoughts you wouldn’t get your ankles wet” – is much more applicable to Donald Trump.

Given Mr. Trump’s unpopularity, given that he is so offensive to so many Canadians, Mr. Trudeau is fortunate in that he cannot help but benefit by comparison.

Though a fellow conservative, opposition leader Andrew Scheer avoids Mr. Trump like plutonium. It’s a smart move. He wouldn’t want to risk wilt by association.

Mr. Trump thinks he has Ottawa boxed in on the trade file by playing the linkage game. As in, either pony up at the North American free-trade agreement negotiations, Mr. Trudeau, or you’ll be bludgeoned with steel and aluminum tariffs.

But in fact Mr. Trudeau has the upper hand and it is getting stronger. Larry Kudlow, the President’s newly appointed director of the National Economic Council, says it makes no sense to go after Canada. While alleging that Mr. Trudeau is “a left-wing crazy guy,” Mr. Kudlow added that exiting NAFTA “would be a calamitously bad decision.”

His appointment was a relief to Ottawa as it came on the heels of the naming of the hawkish Mike Pompeo as secretary of state. Mr. Kudlow will have more input on the trade file. Canadian officials in talks here this week with NAFTA negotiators tell me there was some progress, a more positive atmosphere.

Mr. Trudeau has been right it to make it clear to the President there won’t be any capitulating on trade negotiations in order to avoid tariffs. If a trade war breaks out, Canadians are likely to support their PM. Standing up to presidents when there are grounds to do so has worked in the past. It will likely work with this drama king.

In the audio, Mr. Trump calls Mr. Trudeau a “nice guy, good-looking guy.” He always weighs in on that shallow barometer – whether people he deals with are good-looking, like himself as he claims, or not.

Mr. Trudeau can best find advantage by striking an opposite pose and coming across as a serious statesman. On the tour of India, speaking of appearances, he was criticized back home for wearing the local garb, a kurta and a sherwani. With such an approach — what’s next, lederhosen? – he risks frivolous depictions. If Indian leader Narendra Modi was visiting Canada you wouldn’t find him donning a Mountie outfit or scurrying around in a beaver costume.

Mr. Trump claimed in a speech last week that Washington was always being “outsmarted” by Ottawa and that he would put a stop to it.

Bilateral relations have been a good deal more complicated than that. But it’s true that Liberal prime ministers, whether by luck or savvy, have benefited in their relations with presidents. William Lyon MacKenzie King teamed with Franklin Roosevelt to win import, economic and military bilateral agreements. With president Lyndon Johnson, prime minister Lester Pearson signed the auto pact. A couple of years later, LBJ told him, “You screwed us on the auto pact.”

Pierre Trudeau looked good, as would most any leader, by comparison to Richard Nixon. Bill Clinton helped Jean Chrétien in his fight against separatists with a brilliant speech in Quebec on federalism. The same Mr. Chrétien won a legacy imprint by staying out of George W. Bush’s Iraq war.

Now it’s Justin Trudeau’s turn. An American president is his route to resurgence.

Follow related authors and topics

Authors and topics you follow will be added to your personal news feed in Following.

Interact with The Globe