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The Trump-Trudeau Meeting: Friendly, But Was It Substantive?  

When PM Justin Trudeau met with U.S. President Donald Trump earlier this week, there were a number of items under discussion: expediting border crossings for trade between the two countries, military co-operation and enhancing the role of women in the workforce for example.  But were the results substantive enough? We asked our Salon analysts Charles Bird, John Capobianco and Tom Parkin.



John Capobianco:

Well the meeting is finally over!

PM Trudeau and President Trump had their widely anticipated (although, mostly in Canada judging by the news reporting before and after the meeting) first face-to-face meeting and by all accounts it went well. Like many who would read these pages, I watched the press coverage of the meeting and, more importantly, the joint press conference the two had following their meetings. For me, it was important to see and hear what President Trump’s assessment was of the meeting and his view of Canada’s role within his universe.

It was exactly what the PM and his team wanted, given how the media were prepping the meeting (including many political cartoonists) to be potentially disastrous. With those kinds of expectation, the results they got were acceptable.

Now some fellow pundits and some media outlets focused on the non-verbal exchanges such as the handshake or if there was going to be a hug. On this, my favourite line comes from the Globe’s Tuesday editorial where it mused, “media commentators analyzed their first handshake like zoologists studying the ritual displays of peacocks in mating season.”

These particular signs are always interesting to analyze, but it is the words and actions that will matter, especially when it comes to an issue as important as trade between our two countries.

The President did mention and acknowledge the importance of our relationship and for that we should be grateful, considering his campaign message of America first.

So I would say that the PM, and Canada, got what it wanted on that front and stayed away from more controversial issues such as the President’s immigration ban, which has angered some here.  The more pressing issue of saving jobs through continued trade relations was his first and only priority.

Fair enough, but the hard work of making sure this actually happens will be the basis upon which the PM and his government will ultimately be judged come the next election.


Charles Bird:

I think John pretty much has it right. You can look at Monday's meetings in Washington from a number of different perspectives, but the one thing that is crystal clear is that the Prime Minister and his team had a game plan going in and were ready.

That reflects what has been more than three months of concerted effort on the part of the federal government- since November's election - to communicate with American decision makers at all levels of government as to the singular importance of the Canada-U.S. relationship.

The fact that the messages coming out of the meetings have been uniformly positive speaks volumes. We went in with a series of mutually agreed objectives, whether around trade, jobs for the middle class or common security concerns.

We appear to have made very good progress on such issues as border pre-clearance, thanks to the hard work of my old boss, Ralph Goodale. We also heard good things with respect to how the United States values its relationship with Canada, and I think that extends to NAFTA.

The reference to "tweaking" the agreement had a lot of folks racing for their dictionaries for a formal definition of the word, which happens to be "to make a fine adjustment to a mechanism or system".

While the proof of the pudding is in the tasting, what we heard loud and clear was that in the context of NAFTA, Canada and Mexico are regarded very differently by the new administration in Washington.


Tom Parkin:

There was no crazy handshake. No hair comparisons. Though Trump's press secretary Sean Spicer called our P.M. "Joe Trudeau." Oh well, coming from Sean that's a complement!

The meeting was not a disaster - and that's not nothing. Everyone was polite even in the media studio when questions came about immigration and Syrians. Trump and Trudeau did an admirable job of talking past each other and to their home constituencies without contradicting each other.

But as for the business itself, I truly am not sure what was accomplished. I watched the event. I read the communiqués. But there was little by way of hard information or specific language.

Business leaders seem to be happy nothing blew up - amazing how low our standards have become.

But I am not happy. I believe Canada's business class has rose coloured glasses on when it comes to Trump. I see him as an authoritarian, crony-capitalist, and racist-supported misogynist. I think that's a clear-eyed view and things could get very bad. And I see no reason to feel any better about it after this meeting - as diplomatically successful as it was.


John Capobianco:

Notwithstanding your personal views on the President, Tom, which I am sure a few others share, he is going to be the President for then next four years and we as a nation have to deal with it. The anticipation for this meeting was extreme given how the President handled a few world leaders since he took over. What we didn't want for the very first meeting was something akin to an abrupt phone hang-up like that with the leader of Australia.

What we got was a safe, non-confrontational meeting where both countries agreed the other was important for its job creation abilities and national security. I agree with my friend Charles that the preparation that went into this meeting certainly paid off and I have written within these pages that the PM and his team handled that well, including the cabinet shuffle to ensure the right people were in the right places - this I think led to what we saw coming from the meeting.

Ok, this is all good. What now?

There are going to times and occasions when and where the pleasantries are long gone and the real work of negotiations will begin on NAFTA and we will find out the true meaning of "tweaking" as the President defines it. At this point we don't know what his definition of tweaking is and this will remain a concern until we find out more.

However, on the issues of immigration, environment/climate change and security - these are where there will be (and are) significant differences between our two countries.  At some future time the handling of these will not be as smooth as what we saw the other day.  There will be consequences based on the PM's position on each of these files compared to where the U.S. is, and that is something we need to watch, and hope, for our sake, that the good feeling from their first meeting goes a long way.


Charles Bird:

Hard to disagree, John. That's why it's important to see Monday's critical first meeting in the context of a continuum - not just the first meeting of many to come, but of a relationship between our two countries that spans virtually our entire histories.

We share the world's longest undefended border, but it's still a border and that comes with a great many issues and the unending potential for disagreement. We've done a remarkable job of managing that dynamic, complex and contentious as it may be, and we've also done some amazing things together and stood side by side when it mattered most.

I think Tom and John have also landed at the heart of the matter, and it's this. At some level, we need to accept the decision that Americans have made in choosing their President, as much as many of us may find the choice to be objectionable or even incomprehensible.

The American system of government is rooted in both continuity and the rule of law, and that system has been tested on many occasions, sometimes close to the breaking point. The framers of the U.S. Constitution actually foresaw the eventuality of someone coming to the Presidency who was unfit for the office, and took steps to ensure that other branches of government could exercise appropriate controls, up to and including the removal of a sitting President from office.

Of course, I have never been one for predictions. I will simply say that Monday's meetings were really a great Canadian team effort. The Premiers have done their parts in terms of reaching out and ensuring consistency of message. The Canadian Embassy in Washington has been going full tilt on Capitol Hill. Veterans like Brian Mulroney and Derek Burney have also been directly involved.

I think everyone realizes what's at stake and that we can't afford to get this wrong.


Tom Parkin:

Actually, John, I am not sure he will be President for the next four years. It has been my position – said in it this forum for weeks – that we should be working with other like-minded nations to constrain this man and stop his agenda. Unfortunately, it seems Mr. Trudeau is subcontracting Brian Mulroney’s networks to run this issue – and that is also not something that makes me comfortable.

There is one particular thing that has stuck in my craw. And I think it was a mistake on Trudeau’s part. Trudeau proclaims himself a feminist. I won’t debate that here. But it creates and promotes the perception about himself.

Trump is not. He is a self-admitted serial-groper. In a word, a misogynist. Trump used Trudeau and a group of women business leaders – and his daughter – to try to divert from that fact while we saw him with Trudeau. It was clearly thought out and strategic.

Trudeau should not have agreed to that format. He should not be participating in the normalization of Trump’s sexist behaviour. He should not have agreed to use women for that purpose. He could have said no. This meeting was to be all businesses – and it was. There was little, it seems about Ukraine, NATO, climate change, etc.  Let it be business. Let Trump be seen for what he is, don’t help him shine-up his image at Canada’s expense or, specifically, at the expense of Canadian women.


Charles Bird is a Principal of Earnscliffe Strategy Group’s Toronto office.  He is a former senior ministerial advisor to the Hon. Ralph Goodale and was Ontario Liberal Campaign Director for the 2005-06 federal election campaign.  John Capobianco is a Senior Partner and National Public Affairs Lead at FleishmanHillard. He has been a Conservative strategist with over 30 years of political activism at all three levels, including as a former federal Conservative candidate. Tom Parkin is a veteran NDP strategist and a frequent commentator on national issues. 








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