Opinion

Trump lies. That makes negotiating NAFTA impossible: Neil Macdonald

Normally, trade negotiations are a poker game in which nothing is real until it's signed. Under Trump's leadership, any eventual deal might be no more real than the education all those poor suckers paid for at Trump University.

The best course for Canada is to ignore his childish posing and vigorously pursue other trading partners

Normally, trade negotiations are a poker game in which nothing is real until it's signed. Under Trump's leadership, any eventual deal might be no more real than the education all those poor suckers paid for at Trump University. (Denny Simmons/Evansville Courier & Press via Associated Press)

It's almost sad watching good journalists trying to report on this sewage backup of a negotiation in Washington.

Because we are trained to think inside the box, to respect (even genuflect to) authority and processes, most mainstream media reporting has treated the NAFTA talks as a serious endeavour in a rules-based world: a give-and-take among three countries searching for a deal that satisfies the national interest of each.

We actually need that to be the case. In such a world, we can develop sources, tease out bits of information for our audiences, relate opinions from sober experts deeply versed in the minutiae of international trade law, and civilly discuss the progress of the negotiations, the outcome of which, after all, is vital to our economy.

So deep, in fact, is Western journalism's reverence for institutions that we find it almost impossible to call a national leader a liar, even when the lies are repeated, manifest and proven. Yes, of course presidents and prime ministers occasionally misdirect, or misconstrue reality, or even ignore clear facts or evidence, but promiscuous, ignorant, constant lying? No. Our systems, our democracies, are better than that.

Put that together with our need to feed the news cycle, our need to believe in the watchdog role we treasure, and the vicious, feral intellect currently occupying the Oval Office, and you have the unmoored spectacle now going on in Washington.

No intention of compromise

Take, for example, the reporting of President Donald Trump's supposedly off-the-record remarks to Bloomberg News journalists at the White House, which were promptly leaked to the Toronto Star last week.

Any NAFTA deal, Trump told Bloomberg, must be "totally on our terms." His administration has no intention of the slightest compromise, he said, and he meets all Canadian disagreements by bluntly threatening further crippling tariffs on automobiles and parts made in Canada. Having divided Mexico and Canada to conquer them, he intends to bludgeon both nations with an American-made baseball bat until they cower under the sheer force of American power.

This was instantly taken as significant, a glimpse of Trump's real agenda, a sign of what Canada's earnest, progressive leadership is up against. Reaction was sought from the Canadian negotiating team, which took it stoically. Ink was wasted on Trump's public fuming about being betrayed by "dishonest" Bloomberg reporters.

Just about the only one who refused to be taken in was Daniel Dale, the Star correspondent in Washington who broke the story.

Dale, of course, has the advantage of knowing who leaked the quotes to him (quite possibly Trump's own officials). He's also unafraid of calling Trump a liar, and has in fact made a name for himself chronicling the president's contempt for truth.

In his scoop, Dale noted an important caveat:

"Trump, of course, is known for both dishonesty and for bragging about his own greatness, and he regularly utters dubious boasts about how he is supposedly dominating the feeble people on the other side of the bargaining table. When he claimed to have made no compromises, it is possible he was making a false claim to impress the Bloomberg journalists."

Remember, this was a straight-up news story, not an opinion or op-ed piece. Dale is a scholar of Trump's mendacity. He knows that even when Trump lies, he might be lying.

Bravo. Bravissimo. Remember, this is the same president who has boasted about inventing a U.S. trade deficit with Canada, just to confuse poor silly hapless Justin Trudeau on the phone.

U.S. President Donald Trump has threatened to pull out of NAFTA entirely, and the future of the trade agreement is still unclear. CBC's Lyndsay Duncombe reports. 2:53

Just about nothing Trump says about the NAFTA talks is true or real, and that singular reality should routinely precede all reporting on the matter. As former Canadian trade negotiator Gordon Ritchie puts it: "It's all bullshit. It's all complete, utter bullshit."

When he threatens to cancel the trade treaty, it's nonsense. He has to convince Congress to do that, and it's not even likely he can. When he complains about huge, awful, unfair Canadian tariffs, it's exactly what Ritchie said – the original free trade agreement eliminated all tariffs between the two countries, with the exception of dairy, eggs and poultry, which account for a fraction of one per cent of U.S. imports. (Trump's punitive tariffs against Canadian steel and aluminum, of course, are illegal and wouldn't withstand a NAFTA or World Trade Organization challenge, not that Trump would give a toss).

When he gripes about Canada's protection of its dairy industry, he conveniently ignores America's own protectionist agricultural subsidies.

To Trump and his fans, treaties are just things that hurt America's greatness. (Sean Kilpatrick/Canadian Press)

When he threatens to impose further massive tariffs on Canadian automotive products, he's actually talking about eliminating tens of thousands of American jobs in the interconnected auto industry. As Ritchie puts it, "first out of the bankruptcy gate would be General Motors."

That said, there are no happy truths to cling to, either. There would be no guaranteed reversion to the original free trade agreement, as some have assured us, if Trump actually does convince his poodles in Congress to abolish NAFTA.

And even if the "dispute settlement mechanism" survives Trump's attempts to kill it, the U.S. government has ignored its verdicts in the past anyway. To Trump and his fans, treaties are just things that hurt America's greatness.

Reality is fog. All we really know is that our once greatest ally and close partner has elected as its leader a cheapjack liar who deserves no respect or credence whatever, least of all from serious journalists. Any administration statement should be reported with the liar asterisk.

It's so weird in Washington that we don't even know if his trade officials and negotiators actually speak for him. Again, remember: this is a president under investigation, who is currently trying to convince Americans that his own attorney general is running a rogue justice department.

Normally, trade negotiations are a poker game in which nothing is real until it's signed. Under Trump's leadership, any eventual deal might be no more real than the education all those poor suckers paid for at Trump University.

The best course for Canada is to ignore his childish posing, remember all his lies, and vigorously pursue other trading partners. An oil pipeline to Pacific tidewater would help a great deal, but that's another matter, isn't it?

This column is part of CBC's Opinion section. For more information about this section, please read this editor's blog and our FAQ.

About the Author

Neil Macdonald

Opinion Columnist

Neil Macdonald is an opinion columnist for CBC News, based in Ottawa. Prior to that he was the CBC's Washington correspondent for 12 years, and before that he spent five years reporting from the Middle East. He also had a previous career in newspapers, and speaks English and French fluently, and some Arabic.