The Oval Office steamed. In fact, according to a handheld thermometer/hygrometer, as the U.S. president roosted on the edge of his armchair, pressing the pads of his fingers together in the shape of a pentagon, speaking about his nuclear arsenal beside the Prime Minister, the climate in the office measured 68 per cent humidity.
“I know the capability that we have, believe me, and it is awesome. It is massive,” Donald Trump said during a meeting with Justin Trudeau Wednesday in his quarters. “I think I have a little bit different attitude on North Korea than other people have, and I listen to everybody, but ultimately, my attitude is the one that matters, isn’t it?”
It is so, on Trudeau’s fourth visit to Washington as PM, he faces his most pressing agenda yet. He must soothe Trump’s threats to sabotage North American trade, reverse policies that have created a refugee influx in Canada and tame ambitions for nuclear war—for the president dances around with the world on his shoulders, the Atlas who not so much shrugged as shimmied.
“It’s going to be in tip-top shape,” Trump said of his nuclear weaponry. “Ultimately I will do what’s right for the United States and really what’s right for the world because this is really a world issue.” Trump alluded to goals of joint nuclear ventures with Canada. Aside from defence, he said, “I guess we’ll also be discussing mutual offence, which people don’t mention too often.”
Americans have been mentioning it for 50 years. John F. Kennedy sent staff to Ottawa to try to convince John Diefenbaker to invest in nuclear arms; his staff even accidentally left behind a memo in the prime minister’s office stating their goal to “push” Canada toward the American stance.
Trudeau has so far resisted, but Trump holds a proficient vocabulary of fighting words. “We’ll see what happens with NAFTA,” Trump said in their meeting in the White House, talking about both Canada and Mexico. “It’s possible we won’t be able to reach a deal with one or the other.”
Trudeau needs to rescue the 1,700-page agreement that brings law and order to the economy’s fussiest yet vital details. NAFTA protects the jobs of more Americans than the population of Ontario, and it prevents, say, General Motors from fighting about where it assembles its bumpers, or fashion designers from debating the origins of the silkworm gut fibres in a pair of pants (see Appendix 1.1).
“It’s tempting to say we’re at the precipice, we’re at the cliff,” says one source who speaks frequently with the Canadian and American delegations, but, “there’s still time left.” Trudeau has reportedly invoked what the New York Times calls a “doughnut strategy,” by which his team works with governors and mayors on the outer rings of government and avoids the inner presidential Timbit.
Ottawa discussions did not go well, says the source, and one rumour he’s heard is that Americans have outrageously asked for changes to procurement rules that would force a Canadian government agency to contract an American company every time the reverse happens—a lopsided proposal based on population, and a step backward in free trade. “Instead of NAFTA 2.0,” the source says, “we go to NAFTA 0.8.”
Canada’s ambassador to the U.S., David MacNaughton, is a shrewd public affairs operator, and among the hottest topics he must address is the temporary protected status of Haitians, more than 4,000 of whom claimed asylum in Canada this summer. MacNaughton notes that Canada welcomes refugees—his own sister helped a church sponsor a Syrian family—but the American diaspora is separate. Speaking of the negotiations generally, he told the Washington Diplomat newspaper, “I’m sure there’s going to be some drama around it.”
Trudeau met with MacNaughton after delivering optimism to the House Committee of Ways and Means, which oversees revenue for the American federal government. Foreign Affairs Minister Chrystia Freeland sat perky with her hands folded on her stack of notebooks—a pupil on picture day—and committee member Richard Neal agreed the three amigos still hold potential to strike a “win-win-win.”
But Trump is not in the business of behaving, and the deal could become a lose-lose-cheat. He must legally give six months’ notice before leaving the agreement, and American government structure means he would have to get approval of Congress, yet he talks about termination before the end of the year regardless of bicameral blockades.
The predicament will test Trudeau. He might harness his genes and be firm like his father, who would get angry at his servant if his sons were not lined up at the front door at 8 a.m. for their morning hug; who cancelled a lunch with eight premiers during negotiations about the Constitution, stating, “I guess I’ll have lots of leftover salmon because there’s no point in going on negotiating with you people.”
Justin Trudeau writes his plans in ink, carrying a blue pen in his satchel. However, Trump’s ideas may be even more permanent. On the heated day when he met with Trudeau, on the desk in the Oval Office lay one fat, black Sharpie.
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