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It was an accident of history that David MacNaughton became the right person to deal with the biggest thing Justin Trudeau has faced.

When he was first appointed as ambassador to the United States, Mr. MacNaughton was a Liberal insider who was heading to Washington to rekindle ties in a Trudeau-Obama bromance.

Then, Donald Trump came along threatening to tear up the North American free-trade agreement (NAFTA) and tweeting that he could ruin Canada’s economy. Suddenly, Mr. MacNaughton’s unflappable nature and skills as a political persuader were critical to Mr. Trudeau’s tenure.

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The job was now dealing with the most unpredictable U.S. administration in modern memory, avoiding taking the bait of Mr. Trump’s cattle-prod tweets, working to build contacts that might contain some of his impulses, and avoiding (at least outwardly) panic in the midst of an all-consuming political drama in which Canada’s economic prosperity seemed to be at stake. On Thursday, Mr. MacNaughton referred to that challenge as an “existential threat.”

It certainly was the most important thing that Mr. Trudeau’s government has had to get through since it came to power. And on this, it proved adept at playing a cool hand. Mr. MacNaughton didn’t call all the shots on that, but his calm character was at the centre of it.

The unflustered response to Mr. Trump’s pressure was basically government policy, from Mr. Trudeau and Foreign Affairs Minister Chrystia Freeland to negotiators. Mr. MacNaughton was the front line in the U.S. relationship, and set the unperturbed tone.

He admitted that he didn’t always feel that way, in an interview Thursday as he prepared to leave his post for the private sector. Last August, late in the NAFTA talks, as the Trump administration redoubled its rhetoric and pressure mounted in Canada to get a deal done, Mexico reached a surprise tentative deal with the U.S. The Mexicans were supposed to be talking to the Americans about bilateral issues such as seasonal vegetables, but went broader, agreeing to things they had told Canada they would not agree to, Mr. MacNaughton said.

“That was, I wouldn’t say panic, but it was tense,” Mr. MacNaughton said. “You know, you always wonder whether you’re doing the right thing, even though you’ve got a plan, and you’re pretty confident in your plan. … But I didn’t always sleep well at night.”

“You had to make sure that you didn’t let them see you sweat, because if you did, you’re done.”

If Mr. MacNaughton had served in Washington only during the Obama administration, he might just have been another political envoy. But Mr. Trump’s arrival on the scene meant that the stakes were higher, and navigating chaotic politics was the task. A cool-headed political animal fit the requirements.

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“He thrives in the kind of cut and thrust of political Washington. You’re either a player or you’re not, and he was a player,” said Derek Burney, a former ambassador to the U.S. and chief of staff to Brian Mulroney, who worked with Mr. MacNaughton in the 1970s on the staff of Liberal external affairs minister Don Jamieson.

Mr. MacNaughton’s appointment was political. But Washington is a different post, in a politically charged capital where an envoy’s access to American power depends on their proximity to power back home.

Mr. MacNaughton had been an Ontario co-chair of Mr. Trudeau’s 2015 election campaign, and perhaps the only person who held as much sway with Mr. Trudeau as his two chief advisers, Katie Telford and Gerald Butts; At various times before, he had been the boss of both. He probably attended more cabinet meetings than any Canadian ambassador before him.

In the NAFTA crisis, the former political strategist and lobbyist was instrumental in building a broad-based political campaign in Canada and especially in the U.S. He was a key player in a government-wide effort to muster Canadian support, including opposition politicians, provincial premiers, and business and labour leaders, and led a U.S. campaign that went beyond the White House, lobbying key Congressional figures, and enlisting backing from state governors and local leaders.

“Some would call it lobbying, we would call it diplomatic advocacy at the political level,” said Michael Kergin, ambassador to the U.S. from 2000-05. “He orchestrated an effective campaign at the sub-national level.”

“Some people might commiserate and say, ‘poor David MacNaughton, he had to go through that circus’" in Mr. Trump’s Washington, Mr. Kergin said, but it would have been a thrilling time to be ambassador. As it turned out, the cool political operative was the right choice for Washington when the circus hit town.

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