White House staff called the Prime Minister’s Office last month to urge Justin Trudeau to persuade President Donald Trump not to tear up the North American Free Trade Agreement, according to multiple Canadian government sources.
The unconventional diplomatic maneuver – approaching the head of a foreign government to influence your own boss – proved decisive, as Trump thereafter abandoned his threat to pull out of NAFTA unilaterally, citing the arguments made by Trudeau and Mexican President Enrique Pena Nieto as pivotal.
But the incident highlights the difficulties faced by governments all over the world when it comes to dealing with a president as volatile as Trump.
On Wednesday, April 26, the Washington Post, Politico, CNN and the New York Times published stories saying that sources within the White House were considering a draft executive order to cancel NAFTA. The rumour knocked almost two per cent off the Mexican peso and a third of a cent off the loonie.
Media reports in Washington suggested a debate was underway within the White House about how aggressively to move on the reshaping of NAFTA, with hardliners pushing Trump to withdraw unilaterally before his 100th day in office. According to Politico, Peter Navarro, the head of Trump’s National Trade Council, and White House chief strategist Stephen Bannon drafted an executive order that, if signed, would have triggered the withdrawal process. It was unclear according to those reports whether the draft order was prepared as a negotiating tactic or in the hopes Trump might actually move forward with it.
The President was said to be persuaded by the argument to kill what he has repeatedly called the “worst trade deal ever,” despite concerns about the economic disruption that might result.
According to Canadian government sources, White House advisers pushing a more cautious approach then called Ottawa to ask for Trudeau’s assistance.
You never know how much of it is theatre, but it didn’t feel that way,” said one senior Canadian diplomatic source, who spoke on condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to speak publicly about the matter. “Maybe they’re just learning how to be a government. At least they were open to the conversation, and that stopped them doing something rash and destructive.”
Trudeau called Trump late that afternoon, and around the same time Nieto and Trump spoke by phone. By 7 p.m., the White House had issued a statement saying the President had agreed not to terminate NAFTA.
The diplomatic source suggested that the decision to reconsider was pay-off for the relationships that have been built between the Prime Minister’s Office and the White House.
A spokeswoman for the Prime Minister told the National Post Monday she had no comment to make. The White House did not respond by publication time to a request for comment.
Trump subsequently insisted he was not bluffing about threatening to pull out of NAFTA but that the phone calls with Trudeau and Pena Nieto prompted a change of heart.
“I like both these gentlemen very much,” Trump said. “I respect their countries very much. The relationship is very special. And I said, I will hold on the termination – let’s see if we can make it a fair deal.”
Trump acknowledged a speedy U.S. withdrawal would be a “pretty big shock to the system,” which was the basis of Trudeau’s argument. In a news conference in Saskatchewan the next day, Trudeau said he had told Trump that withdrawing from NAFTA would cost U.S. jobs.
The official readout of the call issued by the White House on April 26 deals with both the Trump-Trudeau and Trump-Nieto conversations, saying “both conversations were pleasant and productive” and that “the leaders agreed to proceed swiftly, according to their required internal procedures, to enable the renegotiation of the NAFTA deal to the benefit of all three countries.”
“It is an honor to deal with both President Peña Nieto and Prime Minister Trudeau, and I believe that the end result will make all three countries stronger and better,” the readout quoted Trump as saying.
The readout the Prime Minister’s office released that evening was shorter. “The Prime Minister spoke this evening with President Trump of the United States,” it said. “The two leaders continued their dialogue on Canada-U.S. trade relations, with the Prime Minister reinforcing the importance of stability and job growth in our trade relations.”