President Donald Trump had been pushing his staff to prepare a letter of notification of his intention to withdraw the United States from the North American Free Trade Agreement, so in the spring of 2017 one landed on his desk.
As White House officials fretted over the potential consequences of it becoming public, then- economic adviser Gary Cohn devised a solution: Pilfer the letter before it’s signed and hope the President doesn’t notice. He didn’t.
That arresting anecdote is contained in Washington Post journalist Bob Woodward’s new insider account of the Trump White House, a book that paints the President as incurious, ill-informed, paranoid and impulsive.
That’s hardly news, but Mr. Woodward’s reporting adds a new wrinkle: The White House is barely functioning.
According to Mr. Woodward’s account, the world now depends on a group of cabinet secretaries and overburdened staffers to keep the American ship of state on course (and who appear quite eager to enter into the historical record just how hard they’re trying).
As Canada, Mexico and the United States renegotiate the trade agreement on which a healthy fraction of Canada’s prosperity rests, this is what we are up against.
It’s illuminating to learn the extent to which Mr. Trump’s circle works to contain their boss. The enduring mystery is why so few people are willing to stand up to him.
Mr. Trump is historically unpopular. Only two post-war presidents, Ronald Reagan and Harry S. Truman, had lower approval ratings at this point in their presidency, according to the website FiveThirtyEight.
And on NAFTA, at least, he is isolated. Almost every politician or organization with a stake in the outcome – industry lobbies, labour unions, even Republicans in Congress and at the state level – recognizes the benefits of the agreement and Canada’s inclusion in it. The only obstacle to a new deal sits in the Oval Office.
Eventually, the White House drift will stop. In the meantime, there is no comfort in knowing things could be much worse. Or that so much can hinge on somebody filching a letter.