Ministers set scene in D.C. for Trudeau's Monday meeting with Trump

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau's key ministers have been busy flying to D.C. this week to lay the groundwork for the government's new U.S. strategy, Chris Hall writes.

Liberal ministers have been busy sharing government's message

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau and new U.S. President Donald Trump have yet to schedule their first face-to-face meeting, but Liberal ministers, including Chrystia Freeland, from left, Bill Morneau and Harjit Sajjan, have been busy shaking hands and sharing Canada's message in Washington. (Canadian Press/Associated Press)

Finance Minister Bill Morneau is in Washington today, the latest but certainly not the last cabinet minister to head south for introductory meetings with key advisers to U.S. President Donald Trump.

Morneau follows Defence Minister Harjit Sajjan and Foreign Affairs Minister Chrystia Freeland who, just this week, hopped flights from frosty Ottawa in hopes of fostering continued warm relations with our southern neighbour.

With each visit, with every meeting along Pennsylvania Avenue and on Capitol Hill, the messages have all been consistent.

Canada remains a trusted, valued and important trading partner. The Canadian and U.S. economies are so closely tied that the prosperity of one country depends on the other. Canada can be counted on as a military partner. Canada offers a secure supply of energy.


These are the very same issues Prime Minister Justin Trudeau will want to discuss when he visits the White House to sit down with Trump for the first time on Monday.

"This week's visits are really smart scene-setters for that eventual meeting between the prime minister and president," says Paul Frazer, a former Canadian diplomat who operates a private consulting firm in Washington.

He says each discussion reinforces what the Trudeau and Trump election victories have in common: "It's all about the middle class and jobs, jobs jobs."

Scheduling a sit-down between new U.S. President Donald Trump and Trudeau has been a challenge. (Carlo Allegri, Andrew Kelly/Reuters)

These visits are also part of a strategy Trudeau's team began devising not long after Trump's surprise victory. It included briefing notes dissecting Trump's campaign platform, and assessing how those promises might affect Canada.

One of those notes, prepared for Morneau in November and obtained by CBC News, looked at Trump's main tax proposals, including lowering the corporate tax rate from 35% to 15% and lowering taxes on capital gains for high-income earners. Alas, the sentences explaining how those would affect Canada are redacted.

Special unit in PMO

Trudeau created a special Canada-U.S. relations unit inside his own office, drawing its members from the staff of Chrystia Freeland, whom he shuffled from international trade to foreign affairs.

And senior members of Trudeau's team reached out to their American counterparts, making connections and exchanging contact information. Those efforts turned out to be very handy when Canadian officials needed to clarify whether Canadian passport holders would be caught up in Trump's executive order temporarily banning citizens of seven Muslim-majority countries from entering the U.S.

There's no question that Trump's election changed the Trudeau government's approach to the U.S. Gone was the easy relationship with like-minded Barack Obama and his team. Gone, too, was the close personal connection in the White House.

Trudeau got along very well with Trump's predecessor, Barack Obama. (Chris Wattie/Reuters)

In its place is a new determination to make the relationship work despite Trudeau's obvious differences with the new president, both in style and substance.

For his part, Trump just might want — or possibly need — a leader he can work with, or at the very least feel comfortable with, before attending his first international summit.

In his few short weeks in office, Trump has already offended Mexico's Enrique Pena Nieto, who cancelled a trip to Washington over the planned wall along the U.S.-Mexico border, and abruptly ended a tense phone call with Australia's Malcolm Turnbull because of a deal Obama had struck to take refugees now in Aussie detention centres.

But there are going to be challenges. The U.S. has signalled it wants new country-of-origin rules in NAFTA that would limit, for example, the number of Chinese-made auto parts that can be installed in cars that are assembled in Canada and shipped duty-free across the border.

Look, too, for Trump's team to press for an increase in the amount Canadians can buy online from American retailers without paying taxes — an amount now set at just $20.

Freeland's stats

Freeland met her counterpart, Secretary of State Rex Tillerson, and congressional leaders during her visit Wednesday. Her department's "readout" of what the two discussed went beyond the usual bromides about closeness, friendship and co-operation.

"The Minister and Secretary underlined the importance of the economic relationship between both countries, which supports millions of middle class jobs on both sides of the border.‎ They also spoke about the mutually balanced and beneficial trading relationship between Canada and the U.S., as well as softwood lumber."

Freeland told reporters on Wednesday she found a "deep level of understanding" on bilateral issues.

U.S. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson met with Canadian Foreign Affairs Minister Chrystia Freeland at the State Department in Washington on Wednesday. (Yuri Gripas/Reuters)

And just in case there wasn't, she arrived at her meetings toting stats of all kinds.

For example, she'd looked up the value of trade between Canada and the Wisconsin district represented by House Speaker Paul Ryan.

He was, we are told, very impressed with the number.

Asked about the potential of a border tax being applied on Canadian goods, Freeland was blunt: Canada will fight back.

"I did make clear that we would be strongly opposed to any imposition of new tariffs between Canada and the United States, that we felt tariffs on exports would be mutually harmful. That if such an idea were ever to come into being, Canada would respond appropriately."

Today, Bill Morneau picks up in Washington where Freeland left off.  Another chance to set the scene in advance of Trudeau's own trip to meet Trump in person on Monday.


Chris Hall

National Affairs Editor

Chris Hall is the CBC's National Affairs Editor and host of The House on CBC Radio, based in the Parliamentary Bureau in Ottawa. He began his reporting career with the Ottawa Citizen, before moving to CBC Radio in 1992, where he worked as a national radio reporter in Toronto, Halifax and St. John's. He returned to Ottawa and the Hill in 1998. Follow him on Twitter: @chrishallcbc


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