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The trade whisperer

As Canada heads into the latest round of NAFTA renegotiations, Brian Mulroney—who signed the original deal in 1992—has some advice on how to handle Donald Trump

The call had been arranged. Some 40 minutes had been carved out of the former prime minister's schedule for a chinwag about NAFTA negotiations and related topics. But when we called him at his Montreal office at the agreed-upon hour, the Right Honourable Brian Mulroney was in a hurry. "I'm just running to the airport," he said. "I've got a board meeting in New York. So I've got to hustle along as quickly as I can." (1) Politely informed of the lengthy list of questions that awaited his response, he insisted, "I don't have a hell of a lot of time."

Ah, but when it came to it, the 78-year-old senior partner at the heavyweight law firm Norton Rose Fulbright Canada could not resist the urge to address a subject so dear to his heart. Once the conversation had begun, TRH Mulroney was only too happy to revisit those days of glory, three decades past, when the battles of free trade were first waged and won, and to reflect on the new-found currency those experiences have given him.

Let's dive right in. By the time readers see this, we'll be deep into NAFTA renegotiations—or they might have fallen apart all together. What are you hearing?
I'm hearing that it's a tough go right now. That may change, but I think we have to be ready for all eventualities.

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So you think there's a chance a deal might not happen?
It's possible we might not get a negotiated deal. And then what happens? Well, then the Congress would probably intervene. It is difficult to negotiate a free trade agreement with a protectionist administration. But the Congress itself has a lot to say in this. And a lot of congressmen and senators would have employment in their home states severely impacted by a rupture in NAFTA.

You've been referred to as Prime Minister Trudeau's "Trump whisperer." How often do you talk with him about the negotiations?
Well, I'm not anybody's whisperer. The only advantage I would have in this kind of dialogue is that when the prime minister is talking to me, he knows I did it myself. This is not something I read about in books. I was asked by Mr. Trudeau to speak to the cabinet and advise them from time to time. Which I was happy to do. We met with Foreign Affairs Minister Chrystia Freeland and all her top negotiators and advisers for lunch in Toronto recently, and I brought along veterans like Allan Gotlieb and Derek Burney, John Weeks, Don Campbell and Michael Wilson—people like that. And we shared experiences for a number of hours.

I hope they were soaking up everything you had to tell them.
Well, they seemed to find it helpful because, you know, you can't quarrel with success.

Back in 1987 and '88, when you were arguing for free trade, you had to fight enormous protectionist forces in Canada. How vindicated do you feel that Canada so badly wants to preserve what many of us once feared?
It's a little ironic, isn't it? They said we were going to lose our business, lose our culture, lose our water and lose our medicare, all because Brian Mulroney was so enamoured of the Americans that he wanted to be governor of the 51st state. And what happened is that we lost a lot of poverty, and we gained a lot of economic strength, which thereby strengthened our national sovereignty.

Does it pain you to hear Trump attacking something you know is beneficial for both countries?
Just consider this: Last year, with slightly less than 7% of the world's population, the three NAFTA countries generated almost 29% of the world's wealth. In America, 50 million jobs have been created. America's unemployment rate is about 4.1%, the lowest in the industrialized world. How could trade agreements have a negative impact on your economy when you're doing so well?

You're a neighbour of Mr. Trump's, living in Palm Beach, Florida. Have you talked to him about this?
Not in recent months. But I had talked with him before, yes, when he was just coming into office.

Do you have a sense that he understands the nuances of the deal and its benefits?
I haven't seen him up close in negotiations myself, so I can't answer that question. But I think what's carrying the day down there are not the cold, hard facts of this extraordinary achievement called NAFTA. It's the commitments he made during the election campaign, when he said that NAFTA is the worst thing in the world—because "we've lost all these jobs in the upper middle west states"—with no reference to the real culprit, which is automation. Technology. He should have been campaigning against Silicon Valley.

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Something that helped in negotiations in the '80s was your good personal relationship with Ronald Reagan. Have you advised Trudeau along those lines, in terms of Donald Trump?
I have indeed. And when you say that my relationship with President Reagan was helpful—it was indispensable! (2) As it was with President Bush and NAFTA. It's not widely known that the Americans did not want us in the NAFTA negotiations. They wanted two bilaterals. They had a free trade agreement with Canada. They were going to do a bilateral with Mexico that would have impinged or diluted provisions we already had, or changed them. Canada would have been precluded from Mexican trade in goods and services, which is now booming between our two countries. They didn't want us in, and I said to President Bush, "You cannot do this. We have to be in there." After reflection, we were invited in. So interpersonal relationships are vital in something like this. And I must say, the president talked to me about the excellent relationship he felt he had developed with Prime Minister Trudeau, and that's very, very good for Canada.

By the way, I'm just curious: How odd is it to say the words "Prime Minister Trudeau" again?
Not at all. Life goes on.

You knew this man as a toddler, and now he's—
I did. And he's a close friend of my son Ben. In fact, the day we celebrated the 25th anniversary of free trade with a dinner in Toronto—and I think it was the day Mr. Trudeau announced his candidacy for the leadership—I said the Conservatives better be very careful. They should treat him not with derision and scorn, because this will come back to bite them. Because this guy's got more going for him than they allow. Here you've got a good-looking guy who got elected three times in a tough Montreal riding, married to a lovely girl, with three beautiful kids. He's flawlessly bilingual. What's wrong with this picture? The answer is, nothing! So don't underestimate this guy. And, of course, the Conservatives promptly proceeded to underestimate him, and they got their clocks cleaned for it.

You've said the U.S. should "fear" Canada in the NAFTA negotiations. In what way?
When the United States wakes up in the morning, they should get down on their knees and thank the good Lord for having Canada on their northern border. And that's why they should fear a rupture in their relationship with Canada. This is the greatest, most peaceful and productive bilateral relationship between any two countries in history. This is a tremendous shining star for the United States to put in the window. If they were to allow this to rupture or decay, they would have a lot of trouble internationally, because the question would be, "Look, if the Trump administration can't get along with Canada, for god's sake—their old and most valued friend—how can anybody else look to them for leadership?"

That gives Canada something of a hammer. John Manley has said we should be prepared to walk away from negotiations. Do you agree?
I think no deal is always better than a bad deal. In terms of walking away, this is old hat. In 1987, I publicly recalled Simon Reisman back to Ottawa because we were not making the progress I thought we should. And when that happened, Ronald Reagan himself sprang into action, called me and appointed Jim Baker (3) in charge of the negotiations. And all of a sudden, we got it done.

Because of the dependence Canada has built up in its trade with Mexico and the U.S., is there a chance NAFTA has boxed us in? Might we be better off outside of an agreement like that now?
Hell, no. That's the worst thing we could do. I've been saying for years that we should open free trade talks with China, India and Japan. And we should continue with the TPP, quite frankly. (4) We should be doing all this from a base of economic strength that is generated in large measure by our membership in NAFTA.

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There are some who argue, though, that globalism is on the wane and that it might be time to find ways of living without so much trade.
Be my guest. That is something only very uninformed and reckless people would consider. But look, when I was doing the free trade agreement with President Reagan, there were serious Canadian politicians who were saying, "We don't want to do this. The United States is a waning force, and the shooting star is Japan. We should be looking to a future with Japan." How do you like that for loony-tunes?

Speaking of loony-tunes, I want to bring it back to Donald Trump. How did you get to know him?
Oh, just socially in New York. And then we were in Palm Beach and he bought Mar-a-Lago. Our children are the same age, so they were friendly. We used to see them, Donald and his wife, socially in Palm Beach, and from time to time at his club for dinner, and then for charity events at Mar-a-Lago and elsewhere.

Do you run into the Trumps now on occasion?
Oh, yes, and we have lots of mutual friends. Any time we go to Palm Beach, we see them.

That night when David Foster invited you to sing at Mar-a-Lago, were you actually singing to Donald Trump?
No, that was all nonsense. This was a cancer charity event. When David invited me to sing (5), Trump was not there. But as I got up to sing, he walked in with Melania. And he came over and sat at my table. Then I sang, and he and Melania led the standing ovation. This was on the Friday night, and he had seen Prime Minister Trudeau on Monday at the White House. When I came off the stage, he greeted me and he said, "By the way, you were absolutely right, Brian. I met with Prime Minister Trudeau on Monday, and he's a fine young man. And I think we can do a lot of good business together."

How do you square that with the posturing he engages in?
I can't. That's the way he operates. He's very unorthodox.


1. He is chairman of Quebecor Inc., and sits on the boards of the Blackstone Group and Wyndham Worldwide. He also chairs Barrick Gold's international advisory board.

2. At Reagan's funeral, Mulroney eulogized: "May our common future and that of our great nations be guided by wise men and women who will remember always the golden achievements of the Reagan era…"

3. In 1987, Baker was U.S. Secretary of the Treasury.

4. The Trans-Pacific Partnership was a trade agreement between Australia, Brunei Darussalam, Canada, Chile, Japan, Malaysia, Mexico, New Zealand, Peru, Singapore, the U.S. and Vietnam. It was
effectively killed when the U.S. withdrew in January,
although some nations are continuing without them.

5. He sang "When Irish Eyes Are Smiling."


This interview has been edited and condensed.

Editor’s note: A previous version of this article said Mr. Mulroney signed NAFTA in 1993. In fact, he signed the trade deal in 1992. This online version has been corrected.
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