After Donald Trump escorted Justin Trudeau away from their lecterns and the shouted questions of dissatisfied journalists, a Los Angeles Times reporter observed that the Associated Press wire service had sent out zero urgent bulletins from a presidential news conference. Trump, the man who lives much of his life in all-caps text (and exclamation marks!) manage to get through an entire 25-minute session at a lectern without anything that prompted a BREAKING alert in the United States.
It's not often AP sends 0 bulletins off a presidential news conference. It just happened
— Mike Memoli (@mikememoli) February 13, 2017
For the Canadian side, the fact that nothing was BREAKING meant that everything remained intact—the sturdy relationship with the mammoth trading partner, Trudeau’s discipline to not offend his host and a mercurial president’s sanguine view of Canada.
That a nightmare-scenario president produced a first leader-to-leader meeting out of Trudeau aides’ dreams is big news enough, given everything that could have gone wrong, or disastrously wrong. But there were a couple of hiccups, and signs of potential problems down the road. Here’s the view from Monday:
Pretty much everything Trump said about Canada: the joint communiqué by the White House and Prime Minister’s Office was well-stocked with Canadian talking points about the 35 states that boast our country as their biggest trading partner, eagerness to expedite the flow of goods over the border and praise for defence alliances NATO and NORAD. The president was even more effusive in his introductory press statement: while Trudeau waxed on Trudeau-ically about the middle class, Trump avoided being his Trumpy, self-aggrandizing America-first self, and portrayed Canada-U.S. almost as a relationship of equals. It was a cornucopia of feel-good platitudes from a politician who’s made many enemies and needs friends, is erecting a wall at one edge of his country and likes more bridges at the other: “Our relationship with Canada is outstanding and we’re gonna work together to make it even better;” “We understand that both of our countries are stronger when we join forces in matters of international commerce;” “Our two nations share much more than a border.” That last cliché was also uttered in 2010 by one of the least Trumpian politicians in America—Nancy Pelosi, the former House speaker and current House Democrat leader.
A win-win for Trudeau and (Ivanka) Trump: For Trudeau, the women executive’s roundtable was perhaps his third-most prominent declaration of his soft feminism to date, after his repeated self-brandings as a feminist and his gender-equal cabinet. Creating a Canada-U.S. Council for Advancement of Women Entrepreneurs and Business Leaders will do little to rock the status quo in either country but is the sort of feel-good, quasi-tangible outcome that often emerges from such bilateral gatherings, and at least helps to burnish leaders’ reputations. (See? Donald Trump and successful women! He’s surely no misogynist… and where’s his African American?)
This also provided an opportunity to provide a positive news bump for Trump’s daughter Ivanka, a week after the president publicly scolded Nordstrom for yanking her fashion line due to plunging sales. Making Ivanka smile at a boardroom table will make Donald Trump smile at a boardroom table—and it will provide tabloid fodder about the newest high-profile JT fangirl, apparently.
Handshake the First: To most of us who’ve watched the president greet Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe and Supreme Court nominee Neil Gorsuch, Trump’s extra-long handshake and arm-jerking act looks silly and excessive. To him, however, it must feel like an expression of strength, in the same way that his overly long ties are terror to those with conscientious menswear habits yet to its wearer may convey the desired Freudian overtones. Trudeau must have watched Trump’s past handshake game. When they first met at the White House entrance, the PM didn’t fall for Trump’s yank, keeping his bicep firm to his ribcage throughout the handshake. A trained boxer is able to control his arms to prevent losing balance or advantage. In not losing at Trump’s weird game, Trudeau actually helped his counterpart look more normal than he otherwise does.
Everybody loves Winston: Three joint news conferences into his presidential career, Trump has done his best to nod along and appear almost engaged when his fellow national leader is speaking. At one point toward the end of his statement, Trudeau got Trump to pivot his head and shoulders with great interest. The bait was Winston Churchill, the wartime British leader whose bust Trump restored to the Oval Office as one of his first acts on the job. Trudeau’s people knew how to play to their audience of one.
— Michel Boyer (@BoyerMichel) February 13, 2017
“Winston Churchill once said, that long Canadian frontier from the Atlantic to the Pacific oceans guarded only by neighbourly respect and honourable obligations is an example to every country and a pattern for the future of the world,” Trudeau said. “That, my friends, is the very essence of the Canada-U.S. relationship.”
This intrigue and attention didn’t last too long. When he heard this was Churchillian praise of Canada’s cross-border relationship and nothing about, say, war or toughness, Trump smirked, turn back forward, and resumed slowly shifting his gaze from the lectern to the audience and back again.
Pretty much everything Trump didn’t say about Canada, and everything Trudeau didn’t say about U.S.: The question posed by Toronto Star reporter Tonda McCharles had the potential to be dangerous, inviting Trump to criticize Canada’s welcoming of Syrian refugees and security of the northern border. After quickly saying one can never be 100-percent certain of security, the president rambled briefly about everything but what he was asked: deporting immigrants to the south; his Homeland Security secretary; his election victory; how happy everybody is about him. That Trump is not terribly interested in the finer points or realities of Canada-U.S. security issues would be concerning in a conventional relationship. But the Canadian worry was that he’d dish out some blunt points and alternative facts about what lurks north of the undefended boundary. Coming out unscathed from that question is a diplomatic victory of sorts.
Canada’s leader had for months avoided criticizing Trump behind his back, and would continue this careful dance standing next to him, refraining from overt criticism of the U.S. travel ban on certain Muslim-majority countries while saying Canada believed it could safely take in refugees with proper screening.
“The last thing Canadians expect is for me to come down and lecture another country on how they choose to govern themselves,” Trudeau added. There is doubtless a contingent of Canadians who do want a firmer expression of values ,and a denunciation of xenophobia abroad. This sentiment will grow if Trump sinks in the polls, or his anti-immigrant policy and rhetoric deepens. But Canada has a long history of overlooking the human rights offences of China in order to safeguard its trade regime; for now, Trudeau is content to do the same sort of overlooking.
Tweaking??!!! (Plus the term left unsaid): Canada-US traders will breathe a sigh of relief that Trump has found a trade relationship he actually likes. But there’s that one nerve-wracking word that will cause weeks of indigestion:
We have a very outstanding trade relationship with Canada. We’ll be tweaking it. We’ll be doing certain things that are going to benefit both of our countries.
Tweaks and adjustments to American-Canadian trade are not abnormal; the Trans-Pacific Partnership, may it rest in peace, would have brought a slew of them. But the range of “certain things” that Trump might be interested in tweaking is far broader than it would be in a more predictable U.S. administration. Details have never been potentially more devilish: dairy producers will fret about supply management, auto parts firms will worry about American content regulations and lumber exporters will keep wondering what a renegotiated softwood deal looks like in the Trump era. Tweaking is the word that will have Canadian Ambassador David McNaughton’s phone ringing for a while.
Underpinning this concern is that neither politician mentioned NAFTA by name, though a Radio-Canada reporter specifically asked about it. This will, granted, cause Mexico bigger worries. But Mexico’s worries have been cranked to 11 for several months now.
Handshake the second: Trudeau won the battle of the image-conscious throughout his day-long meeting with Trump, and might have even won Trump’s grudging respect with the first handshake. But that photo of Trudeau sizing up an extended presidential hand will likely be splashed across many of the papers and TV shows Trump pores over regularly. This may irk Trump, a man who never wants to look anything less than dominant. The whole point of today was not irking Donald Trump.
The video of this event shows that Trudeau only hesitated for a brief moment before shaking Trump’s hand. Then again, that iconic Robert Stanfield photograph failed to record all the football tosses the Tory leader was able to catch that day in 1968.
The accountability dodger: In the absence of any news from Trump’s comments at the news conference, U.S. media focused reaction on the lack of U.S. questions on the day’s hot issue, namely, internal White House anger that national security adviser Michael Flynn reportedly spoke to the Russian ambassador about sanctions, then lied about it to Vice President Mike Pence and others. Trump called on two friendly right-leaning news outlets for questions, and both asked softball queries that let the president avoid an embarrassing issue. The Canadian media, meanwhile, conferred on what two questions they’d ask; trade and refugee policy were the obvious choices. Trump, in a show of cowardice, retreated to friendly questioners, deepening his mutual antagonism with White House correspondents and turning them against some of their peers.
The Waldorf-Astoria photo: Trudeau surprised Trump with a gift of one of his favourite things—portraits of himself. Somebody who did their homework in Langevin Block found in the Canadian archives a photo of Trump and Pierre Trudeau from a 1981 charity award dinner. It’s not a great shot of Trump, then age 35; mouth open mid-speech, he’s looking up and away from the hotel lectern he’s standing at. The current Prime Minister’s father looks much worse, ruddy-faced and looking fatigued as he sits at a table, a half-eaten dinner and empty wine glass in front of him. The archives show a much nicer image from that same night, of the two men posing and smiling—though the gift-givers would have likely had to do a tight cropping job to keep Ivana Trump, the president’s first wife, out of the image.