It's hard to be sure what Donald Trump was trying to get across in his interview with The Wall Street Journal last week. But he seemed to suggest that, contrary to recent reports out of both Ottawa and Washington, he is in no rush to scuttle the North American free-trade agreement.
"I'm leaving it a little flexible because they have an election coming up," the President told interviewers when asked if he had established a timetable for concluding the negotiations. Presumably by "they" he meant Mexico, which holds presidential elections on July 1.
"So I understand a lot of things are hard to negotiate prior to an election. … I understand that that makes it a little bit difficult for them," he said. "… There's no rush, but I will say that if we don't make a fair deal for this country, a Trump deal, then … I will terminate." (His actual words have been transformed here into something approaching coherence through the generous application of ellipses.)
"With that being said, I would rather be able to negotiate," he went on. "We've made a lot of headway. We're moving along nicely. [U.S. Trade Representative] Bob Lighthizer and others are working very hard, and we'll see what happens."
Well that changes everything – if in fact the President can be believed. Reports from the bargaining table indicate little progress in the talks, the deadline to conclude a new agreement is currently the end of March, and both Canadian and U.S. officials have been signaling that the President was ready to pull the plug on the negotiations, which resume later this month in Montreal.
But if Mr. Trump actually wants to wait until after the July Mexican elections before making a decision on NAFTA, then nothing is likely to get decided at all this year. Thanks to the interminable U.S. election cycle, by July, campaigning for the mid-term congressional elections will be well underway.
"He could forget what he said, or change his mind," observes John Duffy, a principal at the consulting firm StrategyCorp, who has leant his expertise to numerous Liberal campaigns. But the thought of Mr. Trump pulling the plug on NAFTA "in the full heat of the midterms – you gotta wonder about that one."
Conservative Leader Andrew Scheer may get a better sense of what's what when he visits Washington this week, part of his effort to offer a "united Canadian front," as his staff put it, in the trade talks. Which, by the way, is the actual point of this column: to remark on the remarkable degree of solidarity between Liberals and Conservatives on the NAFTA negotiations.
Things could have been very different. The Conservatives could have urged the government to cut ties with the Mexicans and negotiate a deal, any deal, with the Trump team. They could have accused the Liberals of failing to protect Canadian jobs and Canadian interests and labelled them as incompetent. But they haven't.
There are things they criticize. The Tories believe the government should have pushed harder, earlier for a deal on auto parts, which is at the core of the NAFTA relationship, and think loading up the negotiations with demands for improved labour and environmental standards only bogged things down.
But, said Conservative foreign affairs critic Erin O'Toole, "We want the government to succeed. NAFTA is a legacy Conservative achievement. We're free traders. This is beyond partisanship."
Thirty years ago, in the epic federal election of 1988, the Conservatives and Liberals fought over the original Canada-U.S. free-trade agreement, signed by Conservative prime minister Brian Mulroney and bitterly opposed by Liberal leader John Turner.
Irony of ironies, Mr. Turner is now witnessing a Liberal Prime Minister go all out to preserve the successor to that agreement from an American presidential wrecking ball, with the Conservatives offering their full support.
This writer has long suspected that the Liberals and Conservatives would, eventually, fall out over the NAFTA talks, that the falling-out could become a key election issue, might even prompt an election on that issue. But so far, the very opposite is happening.
Which, considering what's at stake, is a good thing.