Politics Analysis

It's no bromance, but Trudeau has found a way to charm Trump: Rosemary Barton

Canadian PM is known abroad as the Trump whisperer

Rosemary Barton - CBC News

November 09, 2017

More than one world leader has asked Justin Trudeau for advice on how to approach unpredictable U.S. President Donald Trump. (Jonathan Ernst/Reuters)

One year ago, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau was confronted with an unexpected challenge: A U.S. president more familiar to Canadians as a reality-TV star than for his public policy. A president so vastly different in his approach to politics that it was perhaps impossible to overcome.

And so began a long courtship that now seems to be an actual relationship.

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It may be counterintuitive, given the state of the current free trade negotiations, but there is a clear upside for Canada to Donald Trump's presidency: the ability to put Canada on the map in a new way.

Trudeau and his team have seen it and seized it.

Not exactly a bromance

Trudeau's relationship with the president is, in many ways, the envy of others. More than one world leader has asked for advice on how to approach the unpredictable president, to the point where Trudeau is touted around the world as the Trump whisperer.

It's not exactly the bromance the prime minister had, and still has, with former president Barack Obama, but senior advisers inside the Prime Minister's Office say Trudeau and Trump get along very well. For if Trump appreciates one thing above all else, it seems to be the notion of celebrity — and Trudeau has the name recognition that matters.

In fact, last year, Trump told the prime minister of an encounter he'd had with Pierre Trudeau back in the 1980s, which led to the discovery of a photo of the two of them.

The relationship between Trump and the younger Trudeau — for perhaps "friendship" is too strong a word — is not accidental. From the moment Trump won the Oval Office, Trudeau's team has been building connections both inside and outside the White House.

Former prime ministers have been enlisted, as have former Conservative cabinet ministers. The Canadian team knows who to call and text, and can have their questions answered by senior advisers to the president. And if things aren't going exactly their way, they also have friends in Congress and at the state level who can help them push their agenda.

Trump is 'ideologically incoherent'

Trudeau has said Trump is a good listener and that his mind can be changed when needed, so having different kinds of people to help you do that makes the prime minister's job easier.

Trudeau has said that Trump is a good listener, and that his mind can be changed when needed. (Kevin Lamarque/Reuters)

Ian Bremmer, a political scientist and consultant based in Washington, has suggested Canada is a "pivot country" — not a superpower like the U.S., but one that nonetheless can have significant influence.

Bremmer said the influence could be greater because of Trump.

"He's ideologically incoherent," Bremmer said of the president. "He uses divisions inside society, like race and immigration and religion, for his own personal benefit and to heighten those divisions to create a greater sense of us versus them. I think Trudeau benefits from being antithetical to that."

But Bremmer admitted that this stark contrast also brings risk. After all, the U.S. is not just a neighbour. It is also our biggest trading partner, and the danger of angering or isolating the president is a real one, with real consequences.

When Trump says he will rip up NAFTA, the Canadian government must prepare for that possibility. So the prime minister treads carefully. It is a relationship that must be constantly managed.

Managing risks

For instance, Trudeau won't criticize the president even when he fundamentally disagrees with him. What he will do is point out the difference in values — an approach that can sometimes come with its own problems.

Consider when the president introduced the notion of a Muslim travel ban in January. The prime minister didn't condemn the move outright, which could have been viewed as too provocative, but he did tweet, "To those fleeing persecution, terror & war, Canadians will welcome you, regardless of your faith. Diversity is our strength."

It was a subtle jab at the administration that may have resulted in hundreds of refugees appearing at Canada's borders. Other than that, there was no blowback from down south.

But there is a domestic risk that Trudeau must manage, too. When there is no overt criticism of Trump's values, Canadians may start to feel the relationship is getting a little too cozy. By and large, opinion polls show Canadians don't much like Trump and aren't too pleased with the state of the two countries' relationship either.

That gives a good sense of the fine line the prime minister must constantly walk.

An enormous amount of government time and resources has been dedicated to finding the right balance over the past year. While it seems to be working for now, Trudeau and his team are all too aware it may not last.

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Rosemary Barton
Politics

Rosemary Barton co-hosts The National. She has interviewed many high-profile politicians including Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, former prime minister Stephen Harper, U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry and International Monetary Fund managing director Christine Lagarde.

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