Barack Obama's threat to withdraw from NAFTA should be viewed as "political positioning," according to a memo written after the U.S. presidential hopeful's senior economic policy adviser met with Canadian officials.
The memo, obtained by the Associated Press, was written by Canadian consulate staffer Joseph DeMora, after a meeting in Chicago last week with Austan Goolsbee and Canadian Consul General Georges Rioux.
"Noting anxiety among many U.S. domestic audiences about the U.S economic outlook, Goolsbee candidly acknowledged the protectionist sentiment that has emerged, particularly in the Midwest, during the primary campaign," the memo said.
"He cautioned that this message should not be taken out of context and should be viewed as more about political positioning than a clear articulation of policy plans."
Goolsbee has disputed the memo's characterization of his comments.
Last week, both Obama and his Democratic rival, Hillary Rodham Clinton, threatened to pull the United States out of the 15-year-old North American Free Trade Agreement with Canada and Mexico unless it's renegotiated.
CTV reported last week that an Obama aide told Canadian officials he wasn't serious considering disrupting the continental trade deal.
The memo is the first evidence of any such discussion to emerge publicly.
The leaked conversations have sparked accusations south of the border that the Conservatives are interfering in the presidential nomination campaign.
"You've got a right-wing government in Canada that is trying to help the Republicans and is out there actively interfering in the campaign," senior Democratic adviser Bob Shrum said on MSNBC's Meet the Press on Sunday night.
On the Canadian Embassy website Thursday, the government denied that conversations took place between Canadian officials and members of any presidential campaign regarding trade. By Monday, that statement was replaced by one that apologized for any confusion DeMora's memo may have caused.
"In the recent report produced by the Consulate General in Chicago, there was no intention to convey, in any way, that Senator Obama and his campaign team were taking a different position in public from views expressed in private, including about NAFTA. We deeply regret any inference that may have been drawn to that effect.
Responding to criticism during question period Monday, Prime Minister Stephen Harper said he denied "any allegation that this government has attempted to interfere in the American election."
Clinton lambasted her opponent Monday for saying one thing about NAFTA to appease economically depressed Ohio, and then giving Canada — which opposes new trade negotiations — "the old wink-wink."
Both Goolsbee and Obama spokesman Bill Burton dismissed DeMora's 1,300-word memo as an inaccurate characterization of the "introductory meeting" in Chicago.
"It all boils down to a clumsy, inaccurate portrayal of the conversation," Burton said.
Goolsbee said he did make some comments on trade after being invited for a 40-minute tour of the consulate but that any reference to political positioning was DeMora's language — not his.
"I certainly did not use that phrase in any way," he said.