WASHINGTON, D.C. – Whatever reversals of fortune have befallen the prime minister, he’s still Justin Trudeau. The atmosphere still crackles when he enters a room, as even those who profess malicious intent are drawn to him like moths to a flame.
Yet that intoxicating mix of colour and confidence seems to desert him in the company of Donald Trump – he literally seems to blanch and shrink.
The prime minister met the president in the Oval Office on Thursday and it was quickly apparent that there were too many divas and too little stage.
There are few things as exhilarating or terrifying as an audience with Trump. It’s as if he sucks up all the oxygen and then bounces off the walls as he breathes out. Announcements are made before they’re fully formed; policy is created on the hoof. Just one example – Trump was asked by a Canadian reporter if he would invite the NBA’s Toronto Raptors to the White House. “We’ll think about it,” he said, before pivoting to talk about someone who definitely will be receiving an invitation – Indy 500 racing team owner, Roger Penske, who is to be awarded the Presidential Medal. “We’ll be announcing that over the next little while. I guess I’m announcing it now,” he said. There may well be method in the apparent madness but, equally, it may be completely slapdash.
For those who missed the performance on Thursday, in which Trudeau sat beside the president as a bemused onlooker, Trump lauded his own economic performance, thanked Mexico for ratifying the new NAFTA and said he would work with the prime minister – “a friend of mine” – to secure bi-partisan congressional support for the trade deal.
No media availability was scheduled but the president was happy to field questions from reporters, particularly on the shooting down of an unmanned U.S. drone by Iran. Trump claimed the incident occurred in international waters and said the Iranians had made a “very big mistake”.
When pressed on whether it would lead to conflict, he said that he campaigned on getting America out of “endless wars”. If it had been a manned plane, it would have been a “big difference, a big, big difference”, which suggests a more measured response than might have been anticipated.
Trump had his own theory about what might have happened. “I may be wrong but I may be right and I’m right a lot,” he said, positing that someone down the chain of command had ordered the strike. “I find it hard to believe it was intentional.”
It was a classic example of Trump’s political improv – a stream of consciousness, informed by his own narrow experience, based on evidence that conforms to his own prejudices and rejects evidence that contradicts them. War and peace; life and death, all governed by the chaos theory that permanent destabilization works to America’s advantage.
This has been used against Trudeau and Canada in the past – it was little over a year ago that Trump called the prime minister “weak and dishonest” after the G7 in Quebec. But the signing of the new NAFTA has transformed Trudeau from enemy to ally.
Nobody in the Canadian camp was crass enough to suggest the two men engaged in a business transaction but that’s what it amounted to. Trump wanted Trudeau to appeal to House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, to urge her to expedite the ratification of the trade deal before the August recess. Trudeau proved himself open to this mission when vice-president Mike Pence visited Ottawa recently, and the prime minister urged House Democrats to ratify the new NAFTA on the basis that it is more progressive than its predecessor.
Trudeau said he “offered to be helpful” in a Thursday afternoon meeting with Pelosi and other House leaders, adding he attempted to “allay certain fears” about the deal to Democrats.
The quid pro quo is that Trudeau wants Trump to lend his backing to efforts to free two Canadians – Michael Spavor and Michael Kovrig – who have been detained and charged by the Chinese.
Much of the recent unpleasantness between Trudeau and Trump appeared forgiven, if not forgotten, as the president said he would do “anything I can do to help Canada” when it comes to China.
When asked if he would intervene with President Xi Jinping on behalf of the two Canadians, Trump said he would “at Justin’s request”.
The sense that normal service had been resumed was underlined by the president’s suggestion that ratifying the new NAFTA will mean more jobs for all three countries.
“We’re not competing with each other, we’re competing against the world,” he said.
Trudeau summed up the visit by saying it signalled “enhanced co-operation”, which would certainly be the case if compared to the days when the president’s trade advisor suggested there is a “special place in Hell” reserved for the Canadian prime minister. Incremental progress was made on collaboration over opioids, critical minerals and pre-clearance for people and cargo, officials said.
Trump rather spoiled this Three Musketeers spirit – “un pour tous, tous pour un” – by suggesting he might have to re-impose tariffs on Canada, if there is evidence of increased transhipments of steel to the U.S.
But given the success he’s had of late using tariffs to bully allies and opponents, no-one should have anticipated a complete change to his modus operandi. The word is written in Washington and re-states: “We’re America and we don’t have to apologize for anything we do”.
Copyright Postmedia Network Inc., 2019