'What's his name again?' Once smitten by 'Trudeaumania,' drama-stricken D.C. too anxious to fete PM

What a difference 11 months makes. The enthusiasm over 'Trudeaumania' has faded in the U.S. capital as new U.S. President Donald Trump hosts the Canadian prime minister in a drama-prone White House.

Trudeau visit comes amid deep concerns about a White House in tumult

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau answers questions at a White House press conference on Monday. (Jason Burles/CBC)

Canada's prime minister was in town, but Jamal Turner was drawing a blank.

On a blustery sidewalk of downtown Washington, the 30-year-old Baltimore native was in a chatty mood about "the good country of Canada," extrapolating impressively on U.S.-Canada trade relations and the finer points of the North American Free Trade Agreement, while, just blocks away, the heads of both governments met face-to-face for the first time.
Jamal Turner knew Canada was a U.S. trading partner but couldn't quite recall Trudeau's name. (Matt Kwong/CBC)

"There are 35 states that depend on Canada as a top exporter," said Turner, rattling off a key talking point of the economic relationship.

"But, as it relates to, uh, Prime Minister, uh..."

He leaned forward.

"What's his name again?"

Justin Trudeau.


That's right.

"Not a household name in America," he continued.

Well, maybe not, but it depends on who you ask around the U.S. capital. Just shy of a year after former U.S. president Barack Obama hosted Prime Minister Trudeau's family for a state dinner at the White House, a new American president Trump was in the White House to greet the Canadian leader on Monday.

What a difference 11 months makes.

No more Trudeaumania

Last March's Obama invitation ushered in talk of "Trudeaumania" in reports by U.S. media outlets like Fox News and the Boston Herald, launching internet memes about an Obama-Trudeau "bromance." The state dinner was the hottest ticket in town.
President Barack Obama toasts Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, left, during a state dinner in the East Room of the White House in Washington on March 10, 2016. Their relationship was billed as a 'bromance.' (Jacquelyn Martin/ Associated Press)

On the morning that Trudeau arrived at the Trump White House for a straightforward working meeting, American news outlets around the capital were preoccupied by North Korean missile tests, by reports about tumult within the National Security Council, by fallout of Trump's travel ban, and by allegations that new National Security Adviser Michael Flynn discussed sanctions with a Russian official before Trump took office.

Trudeau meets Trump in 90 seconds

5 years ago
Duration 1:32
The highlights from Prime Minister Justin Trudeau's first visit to the White House since U.S President Donald Trump took office

Too much else going on

"It's crazy. It's just day to day, a full spectrum of things," said 29-year-old Pete Hansel, while browsing the First Amendment-themed Newseum's outdoor gallery of newspapers from that morning's U.S. and international front pages. (Of the 60 covers displayed, one made mention of Trudeau in a headline — Canada's Globe and Mail.)
Pete Hansel, 29, has been living in D.C. for seven years. He says he's a fan of Trudeau's, but that the Canadian prime minister's visit is not 'top of mind' right now as he's mostly concerned about issues like Trump's travel ban closing U.S. borders to people from seven Muslim-majority nations. (Matt Kwong/CBC)

Hansel had heard Trudeau was coming to town, but the new presidency has been beset with so much controversy in the first month that he says the Canadian prime minister's arrival "is just not top of mind right now" for Washingtonians.

"It's anything from what Trump is trying to do around voting rights; around environmental protections; around banning people from entering this country, and just his failure to recognize news and facts."

Lack of chemistry aside, a will-they-or-won't-they tension was building between Trump and Trudeau. Much of it was rooted in expectations the two leaders might publicly criticize each other or clash on ideologies, whether it be tackling climate change or opening borders to Syrian refugees. Trump had already made diplomatic slights against the leaders of Mexico and Australia.

In a city that routinely sees foreign heads of state roll through for high-level meetings with the U.S. administration, Trudeaumania — if it was there — was muted.

At Lafayette Square, across the street from the White House, passersby couldn't place the name. Shown a photo of Trudeau, though, the recognition set in. "He's the handsome guy," said Carlos Castillo, 36, a firefighter from Virginia.
Felipe Echevarria, 22, says 'Americans love Justin Trudeau,' but that he's not surprised the Canadian prime minister's visit hasn't drawn the same amount of media interest as it did last year because of Trump's controversial first month as president. (Matt Kwong/CBC)

Fenella Henderson said she was hearing more about Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe playing golf with and high-fiving Trump than about any anticipation for Trudeau's visit.

Even U.S. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson did not show up, according to reports. A subordinate, Thomas Shannon, was instead scheduled to attend a Trudeau meeting.

'Did they take it seriously?'

Canadian expat Naveed Bandali, 29, heard about Tillerson's reported snub.
Naveed Bandali, 29, from Edmonton, has lived in Washington for seven years, first on an H1B visa and now on a green card, as of October. He's pictured here with his wife at a Canadian Embassy holiday fundraiser in D.C. (Courtesy Naveed Bandali)

"Did they take it seriously?" the Edmonton native said of the Trump administration. "Or are we so below the radar that I guess we can co-exist mutually, despite having big differences on refugees and climate change, without us causing too much of an aggravated response?"

Last March, he said, the big news in America felt like it was Canada. There was a "novelty" to the Trudeau-Obama relationship owing to the fact they not only had overlapping priorities, "but these guys actually seemed to like each other."

"I feel like the novelty now is, what's Trump going to tweet after?"

This was a high-stakes meeting for Trudeau, who walked into the Oval Office with a mission to convince the president that NAFTA, which Trump has signalled he might withdraw from or renegotiate, is worth preserving.

No more fancy socks

Trudeau's cabinet had done some advance legwork. His arrival was preceded days earlier by a parade of Liberal government cabinet ministers who dropped in last week to meet their U.S. counterparts.

There was little room for whimsy on Monday. As a parliamentary pool reporter noted, gone were Trudeau's signature "fancy bright socks," swapped for some more understated footwear, black with small blue diamonds for his sit-down with Trump.
Larkin Barker, 33, outside the Treasury building: 'I know that the travel ban has been big news here and the day after, Trudeau saying Canadian borders were open and welcoming and stuff. Canada is our northern neighbour and one of our closest allies, and the outcome of today's meeting is a sort of bellwether for how international relations could go under Trump.' (Matt Kwong/CBC)

The prime minister departed Washington without major incident.

"A lot of people in Canada are breathing a sigh of relief," Roland Paris, Trudeau's former foreign policy adviser, said from Ottawa.

"Those men were obviously determined not to criticize the other directly, but also took the chance to reiterate their points of view, with Trudeau saying his role is to govern in a way that reflects Canadians' approach. That's a very difficult task to strike that balance."

Make it work

A U.S. trade shake-up might not be as dramatic as feared, as Trump tried to allay concerns by saying he was only interested in "tweaking" NAFTA.

If the bar on diplomatic friendships was set by Obama's rapport with Trudeau, though, Paris has some advice: Lower your expectations. Diplomacy isn't always supposed to be glamorous. Done right, it's often steady and boring — and boring could be a welcome byproduct when dealing with a force as unpredictable as president Trump.

"Canadians expect the prime minister to have an effective working, constructive relationship with the U.S. president, and also uphold Canadian values and defend Canadian interests," Paris said. "That doesn't require bromance."

Diplomacy isn't always glamorous. For Trudeau, boring could be good news when dealing with President Trump. (Jason Burles/CBC)


Matt Kwong


Matt Kwong was the Washington-based correspondent for CBC News. He previously reported for CBC News as an online journalist in New York and Toronto. You can follow him on Twitter at: @matt_kwong