In The Media

Trump available to be persuaded by Trudeau's team: observers

by Chelsea Nash (feat. Colin Robertson)

The Hill Times
November 16, 2016

Justin Trudeau and his Liberal government can’t delay in establishing a relationship with president-elect Donald Trump if they want to advance Canada’s interests, say observers of Canada-United States politics. Donald Trump’s apparent lack of ideology will present an opportunity for the Trudeau team, says Scotty Greenwood, executive director of the Canadian American Business Council.

“He is a person who is available to be persuaded,” she told The Hill Times in an interview days after the man criticized for his racist policy proposals and misogynistic comments throughout the American election campaign was elected as the country’s 45th president. Ms. Greenwood, a former political appointee in the administration of former president Bill Clinton, added that Mr. Trump’s “inflamed rhetoric on the campaign trail” wasn’t directed at Canada, meaning there was still room for education and awareness-building about Canada and the importance of the relationship between the two countries.

Given Canada’s proximity to the United States, geographically and culturally, world leaders will be closely watching Mr. Trudeau (Papineau, Que.) and Mr. Trump’s first interactions to see how the prime minister establishes an early relationship, said former Canadian diplomat in the U.S. Colin Robertson. He suggested the dynamic of the first G7 meeting that includes the new president will be especially interesting for those wanting to know what a Trump presidency will look like.

Look beyond Trump and Trudeau

“It won’t be a bromance,” Mr. Robertson said, using the adjective that many used to describe the friendship between outgoing U.S. President Barack Obama and Mr. Trudeau. Relationship building “starts at the top,” he added, though it can be just as important to reach out at other levels of government.

“Congress is what we put our focus on in the coming weeks,” Mr. Robertson said. New governors will have been elected as well, in state elections. It would be wise for Canada’s premiers to fly south this January to “get to know who the new players are. We can never have too many friends in the United States,” he said. For his part, Newfoundland Premier Dwight Ball said while he has no immediate plans to travel to the U.S., he often meets with northeastern governors, and said he believes the “long-standing relationships” will prevail.

Between now and Mr. Trump’s Jan. 20 inauguration, it’s time for laying the groundwork. “Rather than sit back and wait, we should be actively engaged, putting forward, ‘Here’s where Canada’s coming from. Based on what we’ve read in your [broad-strokes] policy, [here’s] what we think, or are asking for clarification on,’” said Mr. Robertson.

Working closely with the transition team, too, will be critical. “My observation is that Trump…campaigned in very broad strokes, [and] now they’ll be filling in some of the detail” before his inauguration, after which he will be expected to put forward policy initiatives.

Louise Blais, Canada’s consul general in Atlanta, Georgia, tweeted on Nov. 10 a photo of her meeting with Newt Gingrich, rumoured to be a potential Trump cabinet member. “Good conversation on the great Canada-U.S. relationship [with] @newtgingrich #FriendsPartnersAllies,’ the tweet said.

While the election results were still coming in Tuesday evening, American Ambassador to Canada Bruce Heyman told The Hill Times that the way Mr. Trudeau and current President Barack Obama became friends was through “early interaction” in Mr. Trudeau’s mandate. He suggested the two government’s “take that playbook back out again.”

“What happened was there was an early interaction between the two, then we collectively worked together along with the president and the prime minister to identify the priorities of our two governments and then looked at where we can accomplish some real actions together,” he said.

But with a Republican president-elect like Mr. Trump, he and the Liberal, feminist, and environmentalist Mr. Trudeau don’t seem to be as natural a fit as Mr. Trudeau and Mr. Obama were.

For that reason, there will likely be more strategy in establishing relationships with the Trump administration rather than a natural formation of ties.

Speaking to reporters the day after the election last week, Mr. Trudeau emphasized areas where he perceived the two to have common ground, on appealing to voters on the economy. “The fact is we’ve heard clearly from Canadians and from Americans that people want a fair shot at success,” Mr. Trudeau told a stadium of youth at a WE Day event.

In a media conference call the day after the election, Canada’s Ambassador to the U.S. David MacNaughton told reporters he had been reaching out to president-elect Trump “for some considerable amount of time.”

He said that about a month before the election, he had a long conversation with Republican Senator Jeff Sessions, “to discuss some of the things that already go on between Canada and the United States.”

The Alabama Senator was the first sitting Senator to endorse Mr. Trump for president, currently holds an executive position on his transition team, and is rumoured to be a contender for a cabinet position in the Trump administration.

He said that type of outreach will continue post-election.

Leverage influential Canadians

Foreign policy expert Fen Hampson, who is a fellow at the Centre for International Governance Innovation, said to be successful, it’s important to develop a personal relationship with Mr. Trump, and sooner rather than later, while also leveraging those who have existing relationships with the president-elect, such as Conrad Black.

Mr. Hampson said Canadian-born businessman Conrad Black has a relationship with Mr. Trump that dates back 15 years. He was also one of Trump’s biggest supporters throughout the campaign, unwavering in his prediction that Mr. Trump would win. He could be an asset to Canadian politicians hoping to convey a message or two to the 45th president of the United States.

“Mr. Trump doesn’t know Canada,” Mr. Hampson said. That’s why the Trudeau government needs to use the few prominent Canadians who know the real-estate mogul to advocate on its behalf, or at least remind Mr. Trump of Canada’s importance to the United States.

He also said it would be a good idea for Mr. Trudeau to visit Mr. Trump as soon as possible. He pointed to former Progressive Conservative prime minister Brian Mulroney as an example. He said Mr. Mulroney was “more or less in constant communication” with George H.W. Bush, developing a relationship before Mr. Bush became president and speaking on the phone with Mr. Bush on election night. He also spoke with Bill Clinton when he was president-elect twice before Mr. Clinton’s inauguration. Mr. Hampson said one of those calls was about NAFTA, which Mr. Clinton had reservations about at the time.

“Part of your negotiation strategy is to build networks of influence. It’s not just all about personality. It’s working the levers of aligned interests. There are levers in the U.S. that are aligned with us. When the going gets tough, things get kicked upstairs, and they do tend to land on the president’s desk,” Mr. Hampson explained. 

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