Home / News / World /  Trump White House visit to test pro-refugee Justin Trudeau

Ottawa: More than two decades ago, with Donald Trump already atop a real-estate empire, a young Justin Trudeau set out to explore the world.

He toured Europe and Africa with friends, hiding their beer from customs agents before boarding the Trans-Siberian railway to China. On the train, he sketched, read “War and Peace" and gazed at the remnants of the Soviet Union. It was a defining trip, he’d later write, that left him praising both diversity and compromise.

Both values will be tested Monday. The now-45-year-old Canadian prime minister—hailed by Joe Biden as one of the last champions of liberalism—heads to Washington for his first meeting with Trump, 70, whose bellicose statements and immigration restrictions reveal a deep gulf between the two leaders. They will meet privately at the Oval Office, attend a roundtable with women executives and a hold a joint press conference at 2 pm.

But US liberals hoping for Trudeau to emerge as Trump’s foil shouldn’t hold their breath. He’s already bit his tongue and focused almost exclusively on an economic relationship that accounts for three-quarters of Canada’s exports. The White House visit will test just how far Trudeau can go to woo the president and preserve trade without selling out his core values.

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“We both got elected on commitments to strengthen the middle class, and support those working hard to join it," Trudeau said last week. “And that’s exactly what we’re going to be focused on."

Trade ties

He has little choice. Nearly two-thirds of all Canadian trade is with the US, the highest ratio of Group of 20 nations and quadruple all but Mexico. Almost all of Canada’s oil goes to the US and most of the country’s manufacturing is geared toward meeting US demand. Americans hold C$2.3 trillion ($1.8 trillion) in Canadian assets, almost exactly the same amount held by Canadians in the US.

A Deutsche Bank AG report this month that looked at the potential impact of Trump policies on all the US’s major partners found Canada would be among the hardest hit, forcing the country to cede about $70 billion in trade to the US.

Till now, Trudeau’s strategy has been to avoid becoming what his ambassador to the US called “collateral damage" in a trade war they consider to be largely aimed at Mexico.

Three senior emissaries—foreign minister Chrystia Freeland, finance minister Bill Morneau and defence minister Harjit Sajjan—laid the groundwork for Trudeau’s visit with their own trips last week to preach Canadian trade. Freeland has coined the lawmaker-by-lawmaker approach “granular diplomacy" and the trio, along with two other ministers, will join Trudeau at the White House to hammer home their message.

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“When you get really tired of saying what you’re saying, repeat it as often as possible," Paul Frazer, a consultant in Washington and former Canadian diplomat, told the Canadian Broadcasting Corp. “Because there are so many centres of power in this city."

Trudeau and his team will also meet House speaker Paul Ryan and Senate majority leader Mitch McConnell in the afternoon.

Risks and pressure

The visit isn’t without risk. Mexico’s Enrique Pena Nieto already cancelled a meeting at the White House as relations sour, while Trump is said to have had a heated call with Australia’s Malcolm Turnbull in part over a refugee deal. UK prime minister Theresa May courted the new president, declaring that “opposites attract" before later calling his travel ban “divisive and wrong."

At home, Trudeau’s popularity has waned in recent months. He’s under pressure from the left-leaning New Democratic Party to denounce Trump. He partly did so, saying on Twitter after the US imposed travel restrictions that Canada’s doors are open to refugees and posting a photo of himself welcoming a Syrian family. Others are urging him to stick to business in Washington.

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“It’s going to be very important that Mr. Trudeau doesn’t rise to some of the bait that he has in some of the Twitter feeds," said Gerry Ritz, a former cabinet minister with the opposition Conservatives. “I think you have to take some of that on the chin and just let it go."

Course correction

Philosophically, Trudeau remains almost an anti-Trump—a pro-refugee feminist with a gender-balanced cabinet who describes himself as “extremely pro-trade." But he has moderated his message, including by shuffling out a climate-wonk foreign minister in favour of Freeland, his former trade lieutenant. He also skipped Davos for a small-town listening tour, reassigned staff and established a team in his own office to coordinate US efforts.

Trudeau’s cabinet believes both that Trump wants significant changes to the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) and that Canada isn’t his target. However, they fear they’ll be blindsided. Lobbying the US, or responding to questions about Trump, now seems to consume their days.

A poll by the Angus Reid Institute, published Monday, shows support for Nafta has spiked in recent months as Trump threatens changes: 44% of Canadians say the trade deal has benefited them, up from 25% since June. “What a difference eight months and a new US president make," the Vancouver-based agency said in a release.

The president, meanwhile, has paid scant attention to Canada. He moved to clear a path for construction of TransCanada Corp.’s Keystone XL pipeline, which Barack Obama rejected in 2015. He also backed out of the Trans-Pacific Partnership, a trade pact that included Canada.

Tax threat

The threats to Canada from Trump’s agenda go beyond trade. Trump has shown an interest in overhauling the US tax system in a way that would impose financial disincentives against imports. The border-adjusted tax plan would focus levies on domestic income and imports while exempting exports and offshore income. It has met opposition from retailers and oil refiners but is supported by major exporters. It’s unclear whether the president fully favours that approach.

All this, however, is unlikely to be detailed Monday. Instead, Trudeau will seek to lay out a joint economic narrative with Trump.

The prime minister’s conciliatory spirit traces back to that Trans-Siberian railway trip. On New Year’s Eve 1994, Trudeau drank vodka with the conductor, captivated by stories but abhorred by “his casual racism to our fellow passengers," he wrote in his autobiography. The young Trudeau awoke anew, swore off vodka and soon after tattooed the Earth on his left shoulder.

What he called a life-changing train trip nonetheless convinced him that shared experience “can dwarf any difference." That sentiment will define his Washington trip. The autobiography’s title—Common Ground— might as well be short-hand for Trudeau’s strategy with Trump. Bloomberg

Mike Dorning and Erik Hertzberg also contributed to this story.

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