Once, Trudeau had a plan. Then Trump happened
U.S. president consumes all agendas, domestic and foreign. For Trudeau, it's a crisis that never really ends
"Canadians sent us to Parliament Hill with a clear mandate," Justin Trudeau told a roomful of reporters assembled Wednesday to mark the end of Parliament's spring sitting.
Although that agenda has, in many ways, come to seem more timely — embracing diversity, growing the middle class, fighting climate change — Trudeau's mandate did not include Donald Trump, at least not specifically.
In the fall of 2015, Trump was a candidate for president, but he had yet to contest a Republican primary. And no one — not even the candidate himself, apparently — really thought he'd win.
Two and a half years later, Trump has become Trudeau's mandate. At times in recent weeks, Trudeau has seemed to become something akin to a wartime prime minister, leading the country into a great international conflict (with tariffs in the place of actual weapons).
The mandate of 2015, Trudeau said, was to "debate and pass legislation that will improve (Canadians') lives, benefit their families and make their communities even better places to call home." The PM then proceeded to explain what the government had been up to this spring: attempting to close labour gaps, introducing new firearms laws, reforming environmental regulations, passing new laws to deal with sexual harassment in the workplace, regulating recreational marijuana, and so on.
On that last one, Trudeau's Liberals have made real history. And the prime minister seemed yesterday to be otherwise pleased with how things have been going, boasting that the economy is growing, unemployment is down and wages are up.
There was not a word in Trudeau's prepared statement about Trump. In fairness, the president of the United States was not actually on the government's legislative agenda this spring. But the president tends to consume all discussion — even more so lately.
Of the 22 questions that reporters asked after Trudeau's opening remarks at the National Press Theatre on Wednesday, 15 were about Trump. And even the question about the Chicoutimi-Le Fjord byelection was tangentially related to the 45th U.S. president.
What had the prime minister learned this spring about dealing with Donald Trump? What about the president's threat of auto tariffs? What would Trudeau say to those whose jobs might be affected by auto tariffs? What about NAFTA? Should Canadians boycott American products?
What is Trudeau's relationship with Trump like now? What about Trump's attacks on Trudeau? What does Trudeau think were Trump's motivations for those attacks? Why not suspend the Safe Third-Country Agreement in light of the American policy on separating children from their parents? What about renegotiating it in light of all the asylum seekers who are showing up at the Canadian border?
One has to wonder what Trudeau, and the rest of us, would be doing and thinking about with all the free time we might have if Hillary Clinton had won in 2016.
"I think one of the things that we've seen from the president is that he prides himself on a certain degree of unpredictability," Trudeau said.
He did not flinch when a reporter in the room laughed aloud.
"I have to continue to believe that leaders will function in the interests of their own country," Trudeau continued, with a bit of a shrug.
Perhaps Trudeau has to hope that the normal rules of economic and political self-interest eventually will come to bear on the American president. But it's hard to guess how long that may take. And Trump's signature characteristic is his willingness to defy conventional expectations and standards.
Predicting the unpredictable
"I have a hard time accepting that any leader might do the kind of damage to his own auto industry that would happen if he were to bring in such a tariff on Canadian auto manufacturers, given the integration of the auto supplies chain," Trudeau continued.
But, of course, Trudeau might have said the same thing about steel and aluminum tariffs a few weeks ago.
And what (a reporter asked) if Trump does go further? The Liberal government is already supporting the lumber industry and it might have to provide further assistance to the steel and aluminum industries.
"At what point are you concerned about the effect this is going to have on the budget deficit at a time when the Conservatives are focusing on you for allegedly mismanaging public finances?" the scribe asked.
"I'm going to stay focused on supporting Canadian jobs, Canadian workers," Trudeau replied.
Just as there are no atheists in a foxhole, there might be fewer fiscal conservatives in the midst of a trade war with Donald Trump. That's surely what Trudeau's betting on: that if push comes to shove, Canadians will be less concerned about whether the budget is balanced and more concerned with getting through a trade war.
Coincidentally, when Trudeau met with the media yesterday, he had just left a final session of question period during which the Conservatives dwelled on expenses related to Trudeau's trip to India and one of the PM's official residences. Conservative Leader Andrew Scheer was particularly concerned about the amount of money apparently used to install a play structure at Harrington Lake.
Alas, with the House of Commons now adjourned until September, we might be deprived a proper debate about the cost and nature of official home repairs and improvements. (In the current context, a controversy about the cost of a swing set seems like a nice problem to have.)
If Trudeau successfully guides the country through this moment, or if Canadians simply decide they'd rather have him representing Canada in the fight, the play structure debate probably will be forgotten.
But if everything goes sideways — if Trudeau seems to fail — everything else that might be held against him will weigh that much heavier.