Hillary Clinton's campaign team has never told any Canadian officials that their candidate's anti-NAFTA statements are just political posturing, the Prime Minister's Office said Friday.
In the midst of the so-called NAFTA-gate affair, the PMO clarified — two days after it was first asked a question about the matter — that Canadian officials never requested, nor received, a private briefing from Clinton's aides on her position on the continental trade treaty.
"The answer is no, they did not," Sandra Buckler, a spokesperson for Prime Minister Stephen Harper, said Friday.
Meanwhile Friday, NDP Leader Jack Layton accused the Conservatives of employing their own form of doublespeak on the North American Free Trade Agreement.
Layton cited a U.S. legislator saying David Emerson, Canada's trade minister, told him privately last month that he'd be willing to reopen the 15-year-old trade agreement.
"It sounds as though the government is saying one thing and doing another," Layton told the CBC's Don Newman.The issue erupted last week when it was reported that, even while Clinton and fellow U.S. Democratic presidential hopeful Barack Obama were panning NAFTA, Obama aides privately told a Canadian consular official their candidate was only engaging in "political manoeuvring" that shouldn't be taken as policy.
Harper's chief of staff, Ian Brodie, has been accused of being the leak behind that revelation. Initially, it was reported he had divulged to CTV journalists on Feb. 26 that the staff of both candidates had quietly told Canadian officials that their statements about wanting to renegotiate the treaty shouldn't be taken seriously.
Clinton's team angrily denied the assertion she was engaging in double-talk, and Brodie now says he can't recall exactly what he told journalists.
The next day, Obama alone was the focus of CTV's resulting story on the affair. U.S. media picked it up, and it became a hot issue in the last days before crucial presidential primaries in Ohio and Texas.
Clinton seized on the report ahead of those primaries to blast Obama for apparent hypocrisy and double-talking, and the affair might have helped her win over Ohioans, many of whom feel that free trade resulted in the loss of thousands of the state's manufacturing jobs.
But the initial suggestion that she, too, had sent mixed private and public messages about NAFTA continued to dog Clinton. Friday's statement by the PMO will likely allay those concerns.
Obama's team also initially denied that they had played down their NAFTA rhetoric to Canadian officials, but this week, the Illinois senator was firmly in the hot seat when someone leaked a diplomatic memo that seemed to confirm CTV's story.
The memo, written by a Canadian diplomat, outlined a Feb. 8 meeting between Austan Goolsbee, one of Obama's economic advisers, and officials at Canada's consulate in Chicago.
The document says Goolsbee reassured Canadian consular staff that the NAFTA comments were to be seen as "more reflective of political manoeuvring than policy."
Obama's campaign team now acknowledges that Goolsbee met with Canadian officials, but they said the memo gravely mischaracterizes his comments.
Harper has vowed to launch a wide-sweeping federal probe into the affair that will include the Prime Minister's Office.
Tories accused of own NAFTA double-talk
Clinton and Obama have threatened to pull out of the deal if it isn't renegotiated to include protections for workers and the environment.
But the surfacing of Emerson's alleged comments to Michael Michaud, a congressman from Maine, appeared to raise even more questions about the Canadian government's role in the storm of controversy.
Michaud, a congressman from Maine who co-founded the Friends of Canada caucus, said Emerson made the comment to him in Ottawa outside Parliament, but the minister didn't provide details.
Michaud described being "amazed" when he later read in a newspaper article about Emerson's strong stand against renegotiating the trade pact.
Layton raised the issue in the House of Commons in Ottawa on Friday, only to be rebuffed by Government House leader Peter Van Loan.
"That question from the leader of the NDP is totally off base and I cannot understand why he would say that the government is not strongly committed to NAFTA," Van Loan said.