Behind the scenes with Trump and Trudeau: how they made nice
They are looking for a bigger reset after US-Canada relations had sunk to their lowest level in decades
This story is published in a content partnership with POLITICO. It was originally reported by Alexander Panetta on politico.com on October 3, 2018.
After months of tension and insults in their trade war, US President Donald Trump tried out a new role with Canada's Prime Minister Justin Trudeau: peacemaker.
Several sources familiar with a Monday call between the two leaders described the president dominating the conversation with an almost uninterrupted burst of enthusiasm, speaking for the vast majority of a 15-minute call about how amazing, how perfect things would be now.
“It was extremely positive,” said one Canadian.
Other witnesses described the prime minister struggling to squeeze some words in, amid the president’s extended peace declaration.
The themes of that big, beautiful call across the northern border have emerged in public view, with Trump suddenly describing the countries as a regional trading block, ready to take on the world together.
What a difference a week makes.
With a historic trade deal in hand, Trump and Trudeau are looking for a bigger reset after US-Canada relations had sunk to their lowest level in decades.
US and Canadian officials are starting to consider a post-Nafta agenda, with possible projects near and far: space cooperation, global trade reform, border modernisation and regulatory streamlining.
It won’t be easy to convince Canadians that their leaders should make nice with Trump. Some polls put Trump’s approval in Canada under 20 per cent, and the trade deal still requires approval by Congress.
“Trump has the worst popularity numbers for an American president among Canadians that I have ever seen,” said Canadian pollster Darrell Bricker.
“The negative reaction is visceral and total. The idea that there’s even a place to start a conversation based on where he is an extremely optimistic read. The best he can hope for is that there are a couple of issues where his interests are closely aligned enough with Canada’s that the reaction isn’t as intense. That’s as good as it gets.”
POLITICO interviewed five officials directly involved in the trade negotiations, and they paint a picture of a painful experience, followed by a new, more diplomatic side of the usually combative Trump White House once the deal was done.
Descriptions of the closed-door conversations were provided to POLITICO by multiple sources, granted anonymity so they could freely discuss private negotiations.
For months, Chrystia Freeland, Canada's minister of Foreign Affairs, gave the Americans fits.
The US team fumed that Canada’s foreign minister was either playing them, or playing out of her depth.
One notable blow-up came weeks ago when the US team was convinced it was two short items away from a deal.
Freeland raised a couple more, then some more, and, with the Americans losing patience, they demanded to know just how many items were on this list.
Twelve, Freeland replied.
Deputy US trade czar C.J. Mahoney finally snapped. Why, he groused, was she talking about saving the whales, instead of saving Nafta?
The reason the world’s large mammal had surfaced in the tiniest fine print of Nafta was that Freeland raised a concern about marine conservation.
The Canadian say there’s a reason for this. The reason is the Americans wanted the negotiations over, they say, and the Canadians weren’t done.
The US had closed out a deal with Mexico before Labour Day in the hope of using it to squeeze Canada into signing the document.
So when the Americans insisted they were at the end, the Canadians would reply, no, actually there’s still online duty-free shopping to work out.
Canada thought Mexico had agreed to some poor conditions, including the tax-and-duty rules for online shopping.
Freeland hinted at this in her media appearances between rounds where she repeatedly alluded to Mexican “concessions”.
In the end, Canada got some revisions to the rules for online cross-border shopping.
“It is true this frustrated the Americans,” one Canadian official said.
“But that’s why it took four weeks. It was complicated.”
The official insisted that Canada wasn't trying to delay the deal to death.
“If we were playing for time we wouldn’t have been camped out in Washington every week,” he said.
“We would have said, ‘Sorry, we’re busy, we can’t make it.’”
There were also little digs at Trump from the Canadian lead, which didn't help the atmosphere in the room.
Freeland has given speeches in Canada, and in Washington, casting the smaller northern country as a protector of the liberal international order as the southern superpower loses its way.
In an airing of the grievances during a press conference last week, Trump made clear he was no fan of Freeland, either: “We don't like their representative very much.”
America's ambassador to Canada happened to be hosting a goodwill event for Ottawa-based journalists at the moment of Trump's tirade, and it turned the conversation.
While Trump and Trudeau are enjoying a diplomatic detente after this week's trade agreement, both sides are well aware the mood could turn very quickly – especially if Trump decides to insult his northern counterpart.
One administration official outside the White House recently told POLITICO about hearing people in his department allude to Trudeau as “Obama Lite”.
In Canada, that's half a compliment.
Trump's predecessor was so popular in Ottawa that a coffee shop he once visited has transformed into a shrine to him, and when he spoke to Canada's House of Commons in 2016, Canada's elected parliamentarians repeatedly chanted: "Four more years”.
One long-time analyst of the relationship says there are ample areas for cooperation. But he has doubts the bonhomie will last.
Duties are still hitting Canadian timber, there are still tariffs on steel and aluminium, and the political challenges of managing the relationship with Trump have not disappeared, said Christopher Sands of Johns Hopkins University's Centre for Canadian Studies.
“The key is not Trump’s approval [in Canada] but Trudeau’s and the fact that there is a Canadian election in 12 months,” Sands said.
"[The] USMCA [trade agreement] denies Trudeau the chance to run against Trump, and we might not have congressional approval of the deal by next October so it could be dangerous to do so … Trump’s sunshine for Trudeau is not likely to last, and can change suddenly as we know.”