In The Media

Trudeau government 'concerned' and 'worried,' but not 'panicking' over Trump administration, say political insiders

by Derek Abma (feat. Colin Robertson)

The Hill Times
January 30, 2017

Experts and political insiders say adjusting to the new administration of U.S. President Donald Trump has become a high—if not the highest—priority for Prime Minister Justin Trudeau’s government, and that he has avoided “panicking” and is instead dealing with “the new reality.”

Most agree that Mr. Trudeau’s (Papineau, Que.) relationship with Mr. Trump will not be as chummy as it was with former U.S. president Barack Obama. But instead of dwelling on the possible negative effects of the drastic changes underway in Washington, D.C., the prime minister seems to have promptly gotten to work on ensuring Canada suffers as little as possible.

Despite concerns from this side of the border, one of the early initiatives of Mr. Trump last week was to green-light to the Keystone XL pipeline, with certain conditions still unexplained. This could provide relief to an Alberta economy struggling with the lower oil prices of recent years.

Colin Robertson, a former diplomat and currently a fellow at the Canadian Global Affairs Institute, said he believes adjusting to the Trump presidency has become the Trudeau government’s top priority, given the importance of the U.S. relationship. 

Speaking about Mr. Trump’s intention of renegotiating or killing the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) with Canada and Mexico, Mr. Robertson said this about the Canadian government’s outlook: “Worried, yes. Concerned, yes. I don’t think we’re panicking. I think that we’ve been smart.”

He added: “The prime minister at the first cabinet meeting [after Mr. Trump’s election]—where I think some of them were panicking—basically said, ‘Calm down and hunker down. Let’s plan our way through this.’ My impression is this has been very much at the top of his agenda and that he has adjusted accordingly.”

Greg MacEachern, Environics Communications lobbyist and a former Liberal staffer, agreed.

“It appears that the government took this quite seriously early on,” he said of Mr. Trump’s election victory. “And instead of doing a PR campaign about what they were doing, they just went out and did it.” 

The recent cabinet shuffle that saw Chrystia Freeland (University-Rosedale, Ont.) replace Stéphane Dion (Saint-Laurent, Que.) as Foreign Affairs minister, and the move to make Andrew Leslie (Orléans, Ont.) her parliamentary secretary, were seen as being directly related to dealing with the new Trump administration.

Mr. Robertson noted how Ms. Freeland spent about a decade as a journalist in the United States.

“She understands the Americans,” he said. “She reported on them. She has a much better, I think, nuanced sense than most of the other members of cabinet. She has also proven herself to be a good negotiator, both on the Canada-Europe trade agreement and, of course, early on she finished off the long, drawn-out negotiation with the United States on country-of-origin labelling related to our beef trade.”

He said Ms. Freeland has earned praise from people such U.S. Sen. Pat Roberts (R-Kan.), chair of the Senate Agricultural Committee. Mr. Robertson added that the time she spent as a journalist in New York, where Mr. Trump is from, means she likely has connections to many of the people who continue to be part of the U.S. president’s inner circle. 

“These are relationships that are important, and that’s part of the reason she’s keeping the [U.S.] trade file as well as being foreign minister,” said Mr. Robertson.

Mr. MacEachern said Ms. Freeland, even before the cabinet shuffle, was a key part of various meetings between the Canadian government and the incoming Trump administration before the inauguration on Jan. 20.

Mr. Robertson also noted how Mr. Leslie, by way of his military experience in Afghanistan, has links to former U.S. generals like James Mattis, who is the new U.S. defence secretary, John Kelly, the homeland security secretary, and Michael Flynn, who is now Mr. Trump’s national security adviser.

“Beyond the three generals, within the Pentagon, [Mr. Leslie] would have a superb network,” Mr. Robertson added.

In terms of a less visible personnel move, Mr. MacEachern noted that a special unit has been formed within the Prime Minister’s Office to deal specifically with Canada-U.S. relations, which, as far as he knows, is unprecedented. This unit is being led by Brian Clow, who was chief of staff to Ms. Freeland while she was International Trade minister.

Mr. MacEachern said the Trudeau government’s response to the new U.S. administration is almost like an election campaign. “To me, that says that the government is putting a lot of priority on this, as they should.”

Louis-Alexandre Lanthier, a former aide to Mr. Trudeau and now a lobbyist for Summa Strategies, said: “Whether or not [the government is reacting to the Trump administration] in the sense of an emergency or panicking, I don’t think they are.”

Still, he added: “I don’t think anyone—in Canada or the United States— really predicted that Donald Trump would be the next president of the United States. I think people were taking it for granted that it would still be a Democratic administration, with Hillary Clinton in mind. And now it’s just a question of adjusting to what the new reality is.”

Mr. MacEachern said any U.S. presidential change would warrant special attention from Canada, but Mr. Trump’s rise to this position represents “extraordinary circumstances in that the campaign of President Trump centred so much around trade, and when it’s your No. 1 trading partner that is focusing on trade, you had better pay attention.”

A cabinet retreat for the Trudeau government last week in Calgary was largely centred on Canada-U.S. relations and included guests such as Stephen Schwarzman, Mr. Trump’s chief economic adviser, and David MacNaughton, Canada’s ambassador to the U.S.

Cameron Ahmad, a spokesman for the prime minister, would not identify specific concerns the government has with the new U.S. administration.

Mr. Trudeau and Mr. Trump have indicated plans to meet soon.

Mr. Schwarzman told reporters while in Calgary last week that, despite the president’s re-evaluation of various trading arrangements, “things should go well for Canada.”

Mr. Trump has cited China and Mexico as some of the countries he has bigger issues with. Last week, Mr. Trump confirmed plans to build a wall along the Mexican border, and his office said a 20 per cent tax on Mexican imports was being considered to pay for it.

Also last week, Mr. Trump followed through on a campaign promise by pulling out of the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP), a negotiated trade arrangement between 12 countries, including Canada.

Mr. Lanthier said this action by Mr. Trump brings into question what other economic links between Canada and U.S. might be in question, adding that the Canadian government is no doubt aware that nothing can be taken for granted. Mexican President Enrique Pena Nieto cancelled his meeting with Mr. Trump set for this week in Washington, D.C., renewing tensions between the two countries and a possible trade war. The Wall Street Journal called it “the biggest diplomatic rift between the U.S. and Mexico in decades.”

“At the end of the day, Donald Trump is a businessman and I think you have to approach it in a very practical way of doing business with him and this administration,” Mr. Lanthier said.

He said Canada should be focused more on dealing with the U.S. through bilateral agreements than multi-country deals.

Mr. Robertson said Canada should be finding American voices to advocate the importance of the Canada-U.S. trade relationship to the Trump administration. This includes executives of multinationals like General Motors and General Electric, who rely on a supply chain that extends into Canada, and politicians from the 35 U.S. states for which Canada is their top export market.

“When American legislators listen, the top of their list is not Canadian diplomats, but rather American voices and voices of their constituents,” he said.

Still, given the unpredictability of the Trump administration, Mr. Robertson said Canada should continue trying to diversify its trading relationships. The most recent trade data available from November showed Canada shipped $32.7-billion worth of goods to the U.S., representing 75 per cent of the value all Canadian exports that month.

While there is the potential for deepening trade relations with China, Mr. Robertson said Canada should “tread carefully” in this area and not get caught on the wrong side of conflict between the U.S. and China, given harsh rhetoric levelled against China by Trump and members of his cabinet.

“If we were to open up free trade negotiations with China at the same time that the U.S. is engaging in kind of a trade war with China … it would have a psychological effect on the negotiations that we’ve already effectively started on preserving our access to goods and services and people [to and from the U.S.],” he said.

Cross-border security

Mr. Robertson said Canada would find itself in a tough spot if there was any kind of security-related incident in the U.S. that involved perpetrators entering from Canada. He said the Trump administration’s response to such an event would no doubt be more extreme than how Mr. Obama would have reacted. As a result, the flow of people and products across the Canada-U.S. border would no doubt be interrupted, perhaps severely, he said.

“If we’re held accountable, it would be tough for Canada,” Mr. Robertson said. “I think [the response] would be much more deliberative under Mr. Obama. But under Trump, I don’t think he would give us a break the same way the Obama administration might have.”

Stephanie Carvin, a former federal security adviser and now a Carleton University professor, told CBC last week that Canada has to “reassure the Americans that our vetting process for immigrants and refugees is consistent with their own so that there’s no issue about security.”

Yet, over the weekend Mr. Trudeau issued a statement on Twitter that was interpreted as a rebuke against Mr. Trump’s temporary ban on travel into the U.S. from nationals of several Middle Eastern countries, and of all refugees. “To those fleeing persecution, terror & war, Canadians will welcome you, regardless of your faith. Diversity is our strength,” the prime minister tweeted.

Mr. Trudeau’s statement made international headlines and was retweeted more than 400,000 times as of Monday morning.

Mr. Robertson recalled Mr. Trump’s assertion during his election campaign that the U.S. might not defend NATO partners that don’t meet their obligations. Canada spends about half of the two per cent of GDP on defence that NATO countries are supposed to. Mr. Robertson said it’s unrealistic that Canada would double its defence spending “in the next year or two. But I think over time—we may not get to the doubling—but I don’t think we’ll be in last place. We’re about 24 or 27 [out of 28 NATO members]. I think that we’ll probably move to 14 or 15 by 2020.”

He added that it’s unlikely that Canada would be abandoned by the U.S. in terms of military protection because a less secure Canada means a less secure U.S., given the geography.

Mr. MacEachern said despite the attention being given to the new Trump administration, the Canadian government is unlikely to get knocked off its own agenda domestically. He said Mr. Trudeau’s style of delegating authority to cabinet members helps ensure this.

“Cabinet ministers have been given very specific duties and seem to have been given the trust and mandate from the prime minister to go off and do that,” he said. “For instance, I don’t think [Indigenous Affairs] Minister [Carolyn] Bennett is distracted from her work on missing and murdered indigenous women because of the change in the U.S. election.”

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