"Mr. President, is NAFTA dead?"
"We'll see what happens."
That was President Donald Trump, sitting next to Justin Trudeau in the Oval Office, casually musing that North America's continental trade agreement might be scrapped.
The Prime Minister did well, over the next six minutes of a photo op-turned Trump media conference, to sit there with hands clasped on his lap, without betraying much reaction, as Mr. Trump said several times that he might kill NAFTA. Or he might not.
Sure, Mr. Trudeau coughed, discreetly, when a Canadian reporter asked Mr. Trump about the last time the PM had visited the White House, when the President had said that in Canada's case, NAFTA only needed a little tweaking. (What changed?) Mr. Trudeau's eyes tightened once or twice. But at no point did the PM slap his forehead or do a slapstick spit-take.
That must have been hard. He kept a poker face, with a little listening smile. He was the friendly Canadian, talking about the close interrelationship of the two countries.
The Mexicans aren't quite as positive these days. As Mr. Trump's negotiators put forward hardball positions in talks, they've become combative. Mexican Foreign Minister Luis Videgaray said this week that the end of NAFTA will hurt U.S. exporters more than Mexican ones, and that breaking the trade deal would mean a breaking point in Mexico-U.S. relations – suggesting it would hurt co-operation on things like immigration and drug enforcement. The Mexicans are pushing back with elbows.
But Mr. Trudeau remained unflappable, and unflaggingly positive.
In the Oval Office, Mr. Trump meandered around the trade agreement that matters so much to his visitor, saying he might pull out of NAFTA and then strike a bilateral trade deal with Canada, but not Mexico, or maybe even the other way round. He said Mr. Trudeau was his friend, and later flippantly suggested NAFTA might not work out, but no biggie. "I think Justin understands this, if we can't make a deal, it will be terminated, and that will be fine," Mr. Trump said.
Mr. Trudeau doesn't think that's fine. But you didn't hear that from him. At his own news conference on the roof of the Canadian embassy, Mr. Trudeau stressed a deal can still be done, but eventually acknowledged his government is braced in case Mr. Trump does pull the pin on NAFTA. Canadians, he said with a little smile, know the President makes decisions "that can surprise people."
There's room to wonder how much being Mr. Trump's friend matters in the end. The two leaders' February meeting ended with Mr. Trump's comment about tweaking NAFTA, but he may have forgotten it before Mr. Trudeau's limo was out of the driveway. The Mexicans feel it's time to deliver warnings.
Yet Mr. Trudeau's relentless optimism is both his preferred style and a strategy. The government-wide plan was to try to stay away from angry, tweeting Trump. Who can deny the President escalates conflicts when he feels challenged? And the nice Canadian approach is one the government has mustered in lobbying others who might influence the outcome – in Congress, state capitals and chambers of commerce across the United States.
When he went to speak to members of the powerful House ways and means committee on Wednesday, Mr. Trudeau opened with honey, not vinegar, repeating the talking point that Canada is the U.S.'s largest customer, that U.S. companies sell billions of dollars of goods in Canada – and saying he wants to make that easier. Members of that key committee are the kind of allies Mr. Trudeau needs if the President does move to withdraw from NAFTA – Congress has constitutional jurisdiction over trade, and it has the most power to rein in a presidential move to end NAFTA.
Canada is not Mexico, either. Those testy warnings of Mr. Videgaray gave voice to resentment in the Mexican body politic when he said his country is bigger than NAFTA and Mexico has to be prepared to walk away from a bad deal, in part for its own "dignity."
At times, Mr. Trudeau's friendly Canadian verged on Pollyanna, at least until he acknowledged that he has to be ready for NAFTA's breakdown. But most Canadians seem to accept he's playing a patient hand in these talks. Still, at some point, they might itch to hear their Prime Minister say Canada's bigger than NAFTA, too.