Trudeau says Canada-U.S. relations need to rebuild. Just how bad did it get with Trump?


When Justin Trudeau met virtually with U.S. President Joe Biden this week, the prime minister suggested that relations between the two countries had taken a significant hit during Donald Trump’s administration, noting that “there’s a lot to rebuild.”

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Tensions over trade culminated in tariff battles during Trump’s term in the White House, and his use of Twitter to blast the prime minister certainly put a chill on their relationship.

However, despite the often-tense relationship between the Trudeau and Trump, tough deals were still forged, including a revamped NAFTA agreement, while the countries continued to co-operate on longstanding issues.

“The relationship between the United States is so deep and so broad that you can’t characterize it simply in terms of whether or not an individual president and a prime minister get along” said David MacNaughton, Canada’s ambassador to the U.S. from 2016 to 2019.

“Having said that, I think it is of huge value if they do,” he said. “There are times when having that kind of close personal relationship can make a difference. So I think it’s desirable, but it’s not essential.”

Yet MacNaughton said the reality was that Canada and U.S. continued to have a constructive relationship on the meaningful files.

David MacNaughton was Canada’s ambassador to the U.S. from 2016 to 2019. (Graham Hughes/The Canadian Press)

For example, the military and intelligence relationship between the two countries continued to be very strong, he said.

While negotiations for the new NAFTA agreement — the Canada–U.S.–Mexico Agreement (CUSMA) — were tough, an agreement was still hashed out, MacNaughton said.

“And frankly, I’m not sure if we were renegotiating NAFTA today, we would have an easier time with [the Biden administration].”

As well, key figures from Donald Trump’s administration were able to forge strong relations with Canada and members of Trudeau’s team. Sonny Perdue, the U.S. secretary of agriculture was a “great friend,” while former treasury secretary Steven Mnuchin and former finance minister Bill Morneau “got along really well,” MacNaughton said.

Governors and premiers

And as CBC’s Aaron Wherry chronicled in his book Promise and Peril: Justin Trudeau in Power, Trudeau’s chief of staff, Katie Telford built a rapport with Trump’s son-in-law Jared Kushner, who was also a senior adviser to the president.

Even Trump’s controversial chief strategist Steve Bannon had said he had developed a good relationship with Trudeau’s Gerald Butts, Trudeau’s principal secretary from 2015 to 2019.

Then there are the on-going Canada/U.S. relationships between governors and premiers, MacNaughton said. On a regular basis, the Atlantic, Western and Great Lakes premiers get together with their New England, Great Lakes and Western governor counterparts.

Steven Mnuchin, right, treasury secretary in the Trump administration, and Bill Morneau, who served as Canada’s finance minister from 2015 to 2020, were said to have had a good relationship despite tension between Trump and Trudeau. (Pablo Martinez Monsivais/The Associated Press)

As well, there are bilateral mayoral, business and union relationships, he said. 

“So to say the relationship was broken is putting too much emphasis on Donald Trump’s M.O.”

Chris Sands, director of the D.C.-based Wilson Center’s Canada Institute, said so much in the Canada/U.S. relationship is managed by unknown bureaucrats who continued working behind the scenes and were “getting important things done.”

That Canada was able to make a deal to keep the border restricted but not closed following the COVID-19 pandemic was a testament to the co-operation and trust we have [for] the Canadians,” he said.

‘Knows how to get things done’

“I don’t want to say that it was magic, but it was really good and it was a sign of a relationship that knows how to get things done,” Sands said.

“There were a lot of things that weren’t fun but they did get done in the Trump era and they’re still getting done now.”

Still, relations “did get pretty bad” as “trust was eroded over the last four years, particularly on the Canadian side toward the U.S,” said former American diplomat Scotty Greenwood, who spent four years as chief of staff of the U.S. Embassy in Canada.

“I do think that the relationship suffered. I do think the relationship between the leaders matters,” she said. “While there’s a certain inevitability of Canada/U.S. relations, there are still times when you really benefit from a good working relationship at the top to solve thorny issue or to create big opportunities.”

Some of the tension between Trump and Trudeau seemed to be sparked by Trump’s ire with Canada/U.S. trade deals and what he saw as Canada having an unfair trade advantage. (Sean Kilpatrick/The Canadian Press)

On that front, relations at the top were at times tumultuous with the president. 

And some of that, at least, seemed to be sparked by Trump’s ire with Canada/U.S. trade deals and what he saw as Canada having an unfair trade advantage.

In 2017, Trump called Canada a “disgrace” for policies that he said hurt American farmers and would tweet a year later that “I love Canada but they’ve taken advantage of our country for many years!”

What eventually followed was the tense renegotiation of NATFA. But before that, Trump in June 2018, in the days leading up to the G7 leaders summit in La Malbaie, Que., slapped tariffs on Canadian steel and aluminum imports.

This prompted a reportedly tense call between Trudeau and Trump over the tariffs. Trump reportedly at one point asked: “Didn’t you guys burn down the White House?” — a reference to the War of 1812.

‘Dishonest and weak’

The rhetoric became more heated after the summit, when Trump got word that Trudeau had said the tariffs were insulting and that Canada wouldn’t be pushed around. Taking to Twitter,  Trump lashed back that the prime minister was “very dishonest & weak.”

Later, Trump’s trade adviser, Peter Navarro, remarked there was “a special place in hell” for Trudeau, while Trump’s chief economic adviser, Larry Kudlow, said Trudeau had “stabbed us in the back.”

Such level of diplomatic vitriol prompted former prime minister Brian Mulroney to observe he had “never seen language like this. Least of all from subordinates of the president directed at the prime minister of their greatest friend and ally.”

WATCH | Trudeau caught complaining about Trump’s lateness:

PM Justin Trudeau, France’s Emmanuel Macron, UK PM Boris Johnson and other VIPs shared a few words at a Buckingham Palace reception Tuesday – and seemed to be talking about U.S. President Donald Trump’s lengthy impromptu press conferences earlier in the day. 0:25

A year later, however, there was another flareup. At a NATO summit reception in Buckingham Palace in London, Trudeau was caught on video complaining to British Prime Minister Boris Johnson and French President Emmanuel Macron that Trump was late because “he takes a 40-minute press conference off the top.”

Trump would later respond that while Trudeau was  “a very nice guy,” he’s “two-faced” and was just upset that he had challenged the prime minister to make a greater financial contribution to NATO.

WATCH| Trump responds to Trudeau:

U.S. President Donald Trump says PM Justin Trudeau ridiculed him last evening because he was upset that Trump called him out over low NATO spending. 0:41

Weeks later, Trump would take another shot at Trudeau when he learned his cameo in the film Home Alone 2: Lost In New York had been edited out of CBC’s broadcast. (CBC said it had cut the scene before Trump was president and did it to make way for commercials.) 

“I guess Justin T doesn’t much like my making him pay up on NATO or Trade!” Trump tweeted.

21-second pause

The relationship would come into focus again in June 2020 when Trudeau made headlines for his 21-second pause after being asked about Trump’s threat to use military force against protestors in the U.S.

WATCH | Trudeau’s 21-second pause:

Asked about U.S. President Donald Trump threatening the use of military force against protestors in the United States, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau paused for 21 seconds before saying “we all watch in horror and consternation.” He did not comment on Trump. 2:59

Relations would be tested a few months later when Trump again slapped a tariff on Canadian aluminum, only to back down after Canada was set to impose retaliatory measures.

Yet despite these tensions, Trudeau was still able to work out and maintain a relationship with Trump, said former Canadian diplomat Colin Robertson.

“It was difficult, but every Western leader had difficult relationships with Mr. Trump.”

Robertson said while other Western leaders gave up, Trudeau kept trying.

Most important relationship

“He had to because it’s our most important relationship,” Robertson said. “The one relationship our prime minister has to get right if the relationship with the United States.”

Greenwood, the former diplomat, said in an ironic twist, Trump’s threats to tear up NAFTA and his disruption of the system made the U.S. much more aware of the importance of Canada.

“What happened was the awareness of the economic relationship between the United States is maybe at an all-time high in Congress,” she said. 

Greenwood, however, wondered if the new U.S. administration will be able to build from this new awareness.

“It seems to me the question is how will the prime minister, the president seize on the kind of awareness that now exists in the U.S … where policy makers appreciate more than ever our interconnectedness with Canada.”



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