A leaked transcript of a Donald Trump phone call shows the president's private comments about trade with Canada, and suggests he had an overwhelmingly positive attitude about the northern neighbour as he took office.
The purported remarks made in a private phone call from late January are every bit as flattering as the president's public comments just days later when Prime Minister Justin Trudeau visited the White House.
They came in a call with Mexican President Enrique Pena Nieto and were part of a leaked transcript published Thursday by the Washington Post. The context for the exchange was Trump's bitter and escalating feud with Mexico at the time.
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U.S.-Mexico relations had just reached their nadir over the proposed border wall, and who would pay for it. Pena Nieto cancelled a trip to Washington.
In the call, Trump told the Mexican president that he got huge crowds during the campaign, and had promised throngs of 25,000 to 50,000 people that Mexico would pay for the wall, so he pleaded with the Mexican president not to publicly contradict him on the issue.
Pena Nieto encouraged a more positive discussion: He supposedly urged Trump to focus on the fact that the three NAFTA countries could negotiate a new trade framework. That prompted a rejoinder from the president.
"Canada is no problem," Trump replied, according to the leaked transcript.
"Do not worry about Canada, do not even think about them. That is a separate thing and they are fine and we have had a very fair relationship with Canada. It has been much more balanced and much more fair. So we do not have to worry about Canada, we do not even think about them."
Those remarks echo public comments he made a few days later at a news conference with Trudeau. His rhetoric has ebbed and flowed since then. Trump has complained about Canadian dairy and lumber policies, and often threatens to scrap NAFTA barring a new deal.
The reality entering trade talks is a bit more mundane.
The Prime Minister's Office meanwhile refused to comment on the leak issuing a statement saying it welcomes "the modernization of NAFTA."
"We don't comment on leaks," said Cameron Ahmad, the PMO's manager of media relations. " As we have said all along, Canada and the United States have built the most peaceful and mutually beneficial partnership in the world – one that supports millions of middle class jobs in both countries."
U.S. readies demands for talks
The U.S. has posted its priorities for the NAFTA negotiations starting Aug. 16, and they lie somewhere between the two extremes of the everything-is-fine attitude in that January phone call and the more aggressive talk favoured by some Trump advisers and occasionally the president himself.
The U.S. positions include a laundry list of traditional American demands when it comes to Canadian trade. Most of the U.S. NAFTA demands could be found on annual lists published by the U.S. government, year after year.
Those demands include more access for U.S. dairy and wine on Canadian store shelves; freer trade in telecommunications and banking; stricter patent rules for drugs; and tax cuts for online shopping of imported U.S. goods.
Other priorities dear to the Trump administration include changes to auto-parts rules and the dispute-settlement process.
A Canadian trade expert doesn't put much stock in those January quotes. That's because the president's tune has changed, and could change again, said Peter Clark, a former federal official and now president of Grey, Clark, Shih and Associates.
"That was then, this is now," Clark said in an interview. "I think (Trump) was pretty relaxed about Canada early in the year... He's got his neck out now on dairy, on lumber...
"He's only as reliable as his last tweet, or his last phone call."
Late Thursday, the Prime Minister's Office said Trudeau hosted a NAFTA call with his provincial and territorial counterparts, during which they pledged "to ensure that the message about the value of NAFTA and the trade relationship with Canada is understood by key U.S. decision makers."