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An inside look at how to win in Trump’s Washington

Canada’s ambassador to the United States, David MacNaughton, talks to Paul Wells about dealing with Donald Trump, saving NAFTA and duck hunting on election day
David MacNaughton, Canada’s Ambassador to the United States of America at the National Arts Centre in Ottawa. (Photograph by Sarah Dea)

After serving as the Liberal campaign co-chair in Ontario in 2015, David MacNaughton was named Canada’s ambassador to the U.S. It was the one job he said he’d consider when pressed about taking a role with the Trudeau government. In 2016, he suddenly became point man on Canada’s tense relationship with the erratic new U.S. president, and the high-stakes NAFTA negotiations. MacNaughton spoke to senior writer Paul Wells about winning over Americans and managing the “disruptor” Donald Trump.

Q: How did you conceive the job of ambassador—were there elements of it you thought could be done differently or better when you first arrived?

A: I thought we could be better as a country in terms of—I was going to say educating—but making the Americans aware of the importance of Canada to them. Everything was going so well that we took the relationship for granted. There were obvious signs of protectionism and growing isolationism.

I think it’s been a really good example of what this country can do when everybody pulls together: federal, provincial, private sector, public sector. I think we’ve upped our game and it hasn’t been just helpful in terms of the NAFTA agreement. It’s been helpful in a whole slew of other ways and it will pay dividends into the future.

Q: Barack Obama was the president when you arrived. What were the challenges you were facing at that time?

A: Obama very much wanted to get the [Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP)] passed and approved by Congress, and anything that would get in the way of that, he didn’t want to deal with. He didn’t want to settle softwood lumber. He was part of the reason that the whole Class 7 dairy issue came up, because he was worried about how the dairy industry in the U.S. was going to react to anything we did and how it would affect TPP.

WATCH: ‘Bromance’? ‘Dude-plomacy?’ A history of Obama and Trudeau

Q: Was TPP Obama’s priority as a strategic counterweight to China in the region?

A: Very much so.

Q: Legend has it that in early 2016, you started to warn people here that Trump could conceivably become president and they should govern themselves accordingly.

A: I think the first time I talked about it was in August 2016 at the Cabinet retreat in Sudbury, Ont. I said all the smart people in Washington say the Democrats are going to win the Senate and Hillary is going to win, and the only thing I know is that all the smart people in Washington have been wrong every time for the past 18 months.

The Republicans might end up holding the Senate and the House and we should be very careful about what we say about candidate Trump, because he may become President Trump. He was a master in the campaign and thank goodness we didn’t speak out a lot beforehand.

Q: Were there elements of candidate Trump’s discourse that looked promising for Canada or was it all a minefield?

A: After he won, we looked at the areas where we agree and the areas where we disagree. In the areas where we disagree, let’s not poke him in the eye.

It doesn’t mean we have to change our policy positions, but let’s focus on the things we do agree on, and the reality is the relationship between Canada and the United States is so broad and so deep that if you spend all day talking about the things you agree on, you’ve run out of time to talk about the ones you disagree on.

Q: Where were you on election night?

A: About two weeks before the U.S. election, [my wife] Leslie [Noble] called me and said we’d been invited duck hunting [on the] north shore of Lake Erie, to a hunting club that’s been there since before Canada was a country. They had never had a female shoot there before, and she wanted to go.

I said, “Don’t you realize that is the U.S. election?” She said, “Yeah, but nobody is going to want to talk to you the day after the election.”

The morning after the election, we were out in separate boats ready to start the duck hunting and I get a call from the Prime Minister’s Office saying the Prime Minister has decided because of the outcome of the election that I was going to be the sole spokesperson for the government of Canada on the election. They didn’t ask me where I was because they just assumed I was in Washington.

Q: How does one concretely respond to the election of a reality-TV star as president of the United States?

A: It was really a matter of trying to figure out how we could establish relationships. I remember I was in New York and had heard there was this guy who had been influential in the campaign and might end up with a post, so I called him and asked him if I could see him, and he said he was busy but could I go to lunch. I said sure and I went to lunch. It was Anthony Scaramucci, and I ended up at lunch with Mike Pence and a couple of governors.

Mexican President Enrique Pena Nieto (L), US President Donald Trump (C) and Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau are pictured after signing a new free trade agreement in Buenos Aires, on November 30, 2018, on the sidelines of the G20 Leaders’ Summit. (Martin Bernetti/AFP/Getty Images)

Q: There are several ways to work on a relationship with another country. There’s heads of government, the elite decision-maker networks, and then there’s trying to have some influence on political culture. It was clear this government had decided to do all three.

A: I was convinced we had a real problem if we didn’t put everybody to work on building all those relationships. It’s interesting how many of them ended up bearing fruit. There wasn’t any silver bullet. It wasn’t like, if you can get to so-and-so he’s going to make all the difference in the world. About a month before we came to an agreement on the deal, I had a call from a couple of senators, one Democrat, one Republican, who said, “We want to come and talk to you about what’s going on.” I said sure. They said, “Can we bring some of our colleagues?” and I said yes. We ended up with 16 senators at the Embassy with me for dinner. Half of them were Democrats, half were Republicans. They were genuinely interested in seeing how we could move things along.

Same thing with governors, same thing with some influential businesspeople. I don’t think we would have got to where we did without all of that happening. That wasn’t just me going out and doing all of this. I remember phoning Brad Wall, the premier of Saskatchewan [at the time], and saying, “We’ve got a problem. Such and such minister can’t go to Iowa to this special event they’re having for Canada. Could you please go?” He said absolutely. That was the response from everybody, whether they were Conservatives or NDP or Liberals.

Q: Was that effort welcome or was it like, get off my back, you Canadians?

A: There was a bit of that. Most of that came from the administration when we were in the negotiations. [U.S. trade representative Robert] Lighthizer and [Secretary of Commerce] Wilbur Ross used to say we were going around them to Congress. I would comment to them that it’s entirely appropriate for us to go to Congress. At the end of the day, Congress is going to say yes or no to whatever deal there is.

RELATED: Canada’s next NAFTA ‘charm offensive’ won’t look like the last one

Q: Near the end, especially around the G7 Summit in Charlevoix, when the president had a bad reaction to something, there seemed to be deep aggravation with every element of this. Did you worry that somehow you had oversalted the soup?

A: You’re never sure you’ve got the calibration right, but what happened in Charlevoix was that I had back surgery the week before and wasn’t able to go. When all of that happened, I phoned Gerry [Butts] and Katie [Telford] and said, “I leave you alone for 48 hours and look at what happens!” But no, look, sometimes the president reacts to things and it’s hard to understand what it is. I still to this day don’t understand that.

Q: Did it feel like a real negotiation?

A: The first at least 12 months, there was very little light at the end of the tunnel. There were lots of people here who were critical, some saying go ahead and do whatever you can to get the deal, but there were things we had to hold out for and fortunately in almost every circumstance we got what we held out for.

Q: What were those things?

A: Their original proposal in terms of the sunset clause would have led to uncertainty in terms of investment that would have made it extremely difficult. No question we wanted Chapter 19 to stay in. That is the one thing that has allowed us to have a decent outcome on softwood lumber negotiations.

There were a lot of things that ended up being very successful that I don’t think frankly the president cared all that much about. He’s so focused on 300 per cent tariffs on dairy that as long as we could give something on the dairy side, it was a huge amount of leverage.

Q: That deep network activation that was key to the strategy—is that something that now is going to deactivate?

A: We can’t stop. We have 100 new members of Congress who need to be educated in the best way possible about the Canada-U.S. relationship. I think it’s going to be even more important from a defence and security point of view. We’ve been part of NATO and NORAD. What we’re starting to see is things in our own hemisphere becoming more challenging. I think we’re going to have to work more closely with the Americans and Mexicans and with some of our Latin American neighbours to make sure our neighbourhood stays safe and secure.

Q: Maybe reinvigorating the Three Amigos Summit process?

A: I think that’s part of it.

Q: How important is the direct relationship with Trump?

A: You can never underestimate having a decent relationship with the president of the United States. But he’s very transactional. We have to think about how you characterize things in a way that will appeal to the things he’s interested in. It’s a bit of an art, and sometimes it works and sometimes it doesn’t. He’s a disruptor. Some of the disruption has been a bit overdue and some of it has been the other kind.

Q: Tell me about this new Congress. Is NAFTA in danger?

A: I don’t think so. There’s no question there are Democrats raising issues about the agreement. Having said that, you look at it and say to them there was no labour and environment chapter in the previous NAFTA. There was no $16-an-hour [wage] in auto plants. Go through all of that and then say to yourself, “Do you want to not have this?”

I think at the end of the day, when they have to vote, they will vote in favour of the agreement.

READ MORE: Save NAFTA? Check. What’s next for Canada’s top trade negotiator?

Q: Your argument to the Democrats in Congress is that this is a positive improvement over NAFTA. Is that true for Canada too?

A: Absolutely it is. There’s no question that giving up further dairy access is something of concern. The government is going to have to make some decisions about compensating those farmers, but overall it’s a big improvement over the existing deal. If you ask me, “Do you want to go back to what we had or do you want to take this?” I’d take this every day.

Q: The Prime Minister is short one principal secretary with the departure of Butts. Is that a job for David MacNaughton?

A: I think the job I’ve got right now is a really important job, and I think Gerald’s job is a really important job, but I don’t like leaving unfinished business. I’ve got to try to work with our team and with the private sector and the premiers to get those tariffs off steel and aluminum. We’ve got to make sure uranium doesn’t get whacked with the same kind of thing. We need to get a softwood lumber deal.

I was disappointed more personally than anything else. Gerald and I have been friends for a long time. I think he’s worked really hard. You can agree or disagree with him, but I don’t like to see some of the comments being made.

This isn’t just about Gerald. It’s about the tone of the public discourse these days. We’ve got to figure out how we can be more civil to each other, because we can’t afford to drive good people out of public life. Gerald and I have had our differences of opinion, but I’ve never doubted his integrity and his dedication to this country.