WASHINGTON—U.S. President Donald Trump regaled a rally of supporters Friday night with a story about a disagreement with Canada’s prime minister, then sprinkled his tale with some questionable statistics about international trade.
Trump told a partisan crowd in Florida that he and Justin Trudeau had a closed-door debate about trade balances.
He described it during the part of his speech where he blasted bad trade deals as one of the reasons he won last year’s election, and reiterated his promise to either cancel or renegotiate the North American Free Trade Agreement.
He lamented a $71 billion trade deficit with Mexico, then added that there’s also a deficit with Canada. That’s where he described his exchange with Trudeau—who apparently kept telling Trump the U.S. has no trade deficit with Canada.
“I like the prime minister very much. Prime Minister Trudeau. Nice guy. Good guy. No, I like him. But we had a meeting… He said, ‘No, no, you have a trade surplus.’ I said, ‘No we don’t.’ He said, ‘No, no you have a trade surplus,”’ Trump told the Florida crowd.
“(Trudeau) said, ‘I’m telling you that Canada has a deficit with the United States.’ I told my people—in front of a lot of people—I said, ‘Go out and check’.”
He said his staff found Trudeau left out some key details, pertaining to trade in goods: “(Trudeau) was right. Except he forgot two categories: Lumber timber; and energy. Other than that, he was right. When you add them all together, we actually have a $17 billion deficit with Canada.”
That’s not what his own government’s stats say.
Statistics from the website of the office of the U.S. Trade Representative—the very office handling NAFTA negotiations—paint a portrait opposite to Trump’s. It says, of last year’s trade balance: “The U.S. goods and services trade surplus with Canada was US$12.5 billion in 2016.”
That reflects a large surplus in trade in services of $24.6 billion, mitigated by a deficit in goods of $12.1 billion.
Trump’s figure on Mexico was also off by almost one-third: The USTR site says the deficit with Mexico last year was about $15 billion smaller than what Trump said, or $55.6 billion in 2016.
David MacNaughton, Canada’s ambassador to the U.S., shot back on Saturday, citing the USTR stats in a tweet later shared by International Trade Minister Francois-Philippe Champagne and Foreign Affairs Minister Chrystia Freeland.
A number of economists have also called trade balances a questionable measure of success. They note that the U.S. economy has had a strong year in 2017, while the trade deficit is growing, and that, in any case, fluctuations are partly pegged to swings in the price of imported commodities like oil.
Trump has repeatedly threatened to begin pulling out of NAFTA, as a negotiating ploy. Mexico has said it would leave the negotiating table if he triggers NAFTA’s withdrawal clause, while Canada has not made such a threat.
Trump told the Florida crowd: “We’re gonna hopefully keep NAFTA. But there’s a chance we won’t. And that’s okay.”