OTTAWA — After months of tension and insults in their trade war, President Donald Trump tried out a new role with Canadas Prime Minister Justin Trudeau: peacemaker.
Several sources familiar with a Monday call between the two leaders described the president dominating the conversation with an almost uninterrupted burst of enthusiasm, speaking for the vast majority of a 15-minute call about how amazing, how perfect things would be now.
“It was extremely positive,” said one Canadian official. Other witnesses described the prime minister struggling to squeeze some words in, amid the presidents extended peace declaration.
The themes of that big, beautiful call across the northern border have emerged in public view, with Trump suddenly describing the countries as a regional trading block, ready to take on the world together.
What a difference a week makes.
“Trump has the worst popularity numbers for an American president among Canadians that I have ever seen” — Canadian pollster Darrell Bricker
With a historic trade deal in hand, Trump and Trudeau are looking for a bigger reset after U.S.-Canada relations had sunk to their lowest level in decades. U.S. and Canadian officials are starting to consider a post-NAFTA agenda, with possible projects near and far: space cooperation, global trade reform, border modernization and regulatory streamlining.
It wont be easy to convince Canadians that their leaders should make nice with Trump. Some polls put Trumps approval in Canada under 20 percent, and the trade deal still requires approval by Congress.
“Trump has the worst popularity numbers for an American president among Canadians that I have ever seen,” said Canadian pollster Darrell Bricker. “The negative reaction is visceral and total. The idea that theres even a place to start a conversation based on where he is an extremely optimistic read. The best he can hope for is that there are a couple of issues where his interests are closely aligned enough with Canadas that the reaction isnt as intense. Thats as good as it gets.”
POLITICO interviewed five officials directly involved in the trade negotiations, and they paint a picture of a painful experience, followed by a new, more diplomatic side of the usually combative Trump White House once the deal was done. Descriptions of the closed-door conversations were provided to POLITICO by multiple sources, granted anonymity so they could freely discuss private negotiations.
Trump has made clear that he is not a fan of Canadian Minister for Foreign Affairs Chrystia Freeland | Patrick Doyle/AFP via Getty Images
For months, Chrystia Freeland, Canadas minister of foreign affairs, gave the Americans fits.
The U.S. team fumed that Canadas foreign minister was either playing them, or playing out of her depth. One notable blowup came weeks ago when the U.S. team was convinced it was two short items away from a deal.
Freeland raised a couple more, then some more, and, with the Americans losing patience, they demanded to know just how many items were on this list.
Twelve, Freeland replied.
Deputy U.S. trade czar C.J. Mahoney finally snapped. Why, he groused, was she talking about saving the whales, instead of saving NAFTA?
The reason the worlds largest mammal had surfaced in the tiniest fine print of NAFTA was that Freeland raised a concern about marine conservation.
The Canadians say theres a reason for this. The reason is the Americans wanted the negotiations over, they say, and the Canadians werent done.
“It is true this frustrated the Americans … But thats why it took four weeks. It was complicated” — Canadian official
The U.S. had closed out a deal with Mexico before Labor Day in the hope of using it to squeeze Canada into signing the document.
So when the Americans insisted they were at the end, the Canadians would reply, no, actually theres still online duty-free shopping to work out.
Canada thought Mexico had agreed to some poor conditions, including the tax-and-duty rules for online shopping. Freeland hinted at this in her media appearances between rounds where she repeatedly alluded to Mexican “concessions.”
In the end, Canada got some revisions to the rules for online cross-border shopping.
“It is true this frustrated the Americans,” one Canadian official said. “But thats why it took four weeks. It was complicated.”
The official insisted that Canada wasnt trying to delay the deal to death.
While Trump and Trudeau are enjoying a diplomatic detente,, both sides are well aware the mood could turn very quickly | Kevin Dietsch/Getty Images
“If we were playing for time we wouldnt have been camped out in Washington every week,” he said.
“We would have said, Sorry, were busy, we cant make it.”
There were also little digs at Trump from the Canadian lead, which didnt help the atmosphere in the room.
Freeland has given speeches in Canada, and in Washington, casting the smaller northern country as a protector of the liberal international order as the southern superpower loses its way.
In an airing of the grievances during a press conference last week, Trump made clear he was no fan of Freeland, either: “We dont like their representative very much.”
Americas ambassador to Canada happened to be hosting a goodwill event for Ottawa-based journalists at the moment of Trumps tirade, and it turned the conversation.
While Trump and Trudeau are enjoying a diplomatic detente after this weeks trade agreement, both sides are well aware the mood could turn very quickly — especially if Trump decides to insult his northern counterpart.
“The key is not Trumps approval [in Canada] but Trudeaus and the fact that there is a Canadian election in 12 months” — Christopher Sands, Johns Hopkins University Center for Canadian Studies
One administration official outside the White House recently told POLITICO about hearing people in his department allude to Trudeau as “Obama Lite.”
In Canada, thats half a compliment.
Trumps predecessor was so popular in Ottawa that a coffee shop he once visited has transformed into a shrine to him, and when he spoke to Canadas House of Commons in 2016, Canadas elected parliamentarians repeatedly chanted, “Four more years.”
One longtime analyst of the relationship says there are ample areas for cooperation. But he has doubts the bonhomie will last.
Duties are still hitting Canadian lumber, there are still tariffs on steel and aluminum, and the political challenges of managing the relationship with Trump have not disappeared, said Christopher Sands of Johns Hopkins Universitys Center for Canadian Studies.
“The key is not Trumps approval [in Canada] but Trudeaus and the fact that there is a Canadian election in 12 months,” Sands said.
“[The] USMCA [trade agreement] denies Trudeau the chance to run against Trump, and we might not have congressional approval of the deal by next October so it could be dangerous to do so … Trumps sunshine for Trudeau is not likely to last, and can change suddenly as we know.”