The Trump Unit: Inside the Canadian squad tasked with saving NAFTA
The U.S. president has been vocal about his willingness to blow up of the trade agreement; a crack Canadian team is working around the clock to ensure that doesn't happen
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WASHINGTON—If Donald Trump deploys the big bomb during upcoming NAFTA negotiations, and threatens to blow up the continental trade agreement, a unit within the office of Prime Minister Justin Trudeau will be assigned to try disarming it.
The Canadian government has created an election-style nerve centre to handle White House-related challenges and officials describing it say it has about eight regular staff: two former trade officials, two senior PMO officials, an ambassador, a writer, a cabinet minister, and it’s run by a young staffer with a reputation for staying cool while smothering political fires.
The most blistering inferno it’s preparing to confront is a scenario where the president threatens NAFTA. Everybody involved anticipates the threat level from Trump will rise with the heat of negotiations.
A well-connected Washington lobbyist milling about last week’s talks said a Trump pullout threat is virtually assured: “Almost 100 per cent.” Trade lawyer Dan Ujczo said it’s a logical play for the president: ”The threat of withdrawal is his key negotiating leverage.”
One former U.S. trade official says the president has shown himself all too eager to play his best card. In fact, he says the president has weakened his hand by trying it too early. Trump threatened to blow up NAFTA in April, four months before the parties arrived at the negotiating table.
Robert Holleyman called that a tactical error as Canada and Mexico got a valuable heads up on what would happen next: the business community panicked, lawmakers were miffed, and Washington made clear it preferred saving NAFTA.
”It was, at a minimum, terrible timing,” said Holleyman, Barack Obama’s deputy United States Trade Representative.
”You do that at the 11th hour in the negotiation—not at the throat-clearing stage… I suspect President Trump will be unable to play that card again. And if he does play it, it won’t be as strong as it would’ve been… The Canadians and Mexicans will say, ‘You… will face a huge backlash in your own Congress.”’
That backlash would leave a messy, uncertain scenario in the wake of a NAFTA cancellation. If the U.S. Congress refused to undo the law implementing NAFTA, the treaty would be left in legal limbo pending possible court fights.
The mission of that PMO unit: prevent things from getting there.
The Canada-U.S. unit resembles a campaign war room in several ways, though its members hate the term. It gathers data on key constituencies—for instance, it collects American politicians’ opinions on issues and plugs them into a database.
It conducts outreach. It co-ordinates rapid response.
All the relationship-building of recent months where ministers criss-crossed the U.S. for hundreds of meetings would suddenly be deployed in the event of a crisis. For example: Should Trump try ending NAFTA, instructions might quickly go out to Canadian minister X to call U.S. state governor Y to lobby friendly Washington official Z.
That order would come from the centre.
The idea for a dedicated unit came before Trump’s inauguration, from PMO officials Gerald Butts and Katie Telford, longtime Ontario provincial political officials who had used the approach before on top issues.
”This is the unit that spends 365 days a year, 24 hours a day, seven days a week, thinking about this—trying to anticipate every possibility,” said one official.
”The U.S. file is… so super-hot that you can take the slightest thing and turn it into a huge story that’s in every newspaper in North America. It’s really important to have the right person (handling it).”
Enter Brian Clow.
He was chief of staff to Chrystia Freeland when she was trade minister, but that’s not the principal reason he was brought in. What senior officials liked most was his penchant for staying cool, and working fast, in the Liberal election war room in 2015.
Clow would not speak for this story.
But someone who trained him in working war rooms was happy to share thoughts about him and the job. Clow learned from Warren Kinsella, who brought the modern election war room to Canada in 1993, inspired by the Bill Clinton campaign’s rapid-response approach to the new 24-hour cable TV cycle.
Kinsella demands three attributes from staff: Keep your mouth shut about the war room. Work fast. Do thorough research. He was impressed with Clow’s speed, cool, and ability to pump out video content while working on the 2007 and 2011 Ontario Liberal campaigns.
Author of, ”Kicking Ass In Canadian Politics,” Kinsella says the Trump project is infinitely harder.
Kinsella jokes that all he does in elections is pull pins from grenades and lob them. Now Clow must prevent explosions—all while working with thousands of officials, multiple government departments, industry groups, two countries, one global economic superpower, and an unpredictable president.
”They can’t declare war on Trump,” Kinsella said.
”In this situation you can’t throw hand grenades—we’re David, they’re Goliath.”
A war room also provides one central hub, so different offices are in contact and don’t contradict each other. The Canada-U.S. unit includes the PMO’s Butts and Telford, Freeland from Foreign Affairs, ambassador David MacNaughton from Washington, and writer Michael Den Tandt.
They got to conduct early test runs.
They handled the response when Trump complained about Canadian dairy and lumber, and when he threatened a NAFTA pullout. The Canadian side kept the temperature down; it responded to heated rhetoric with statistics and telephone calls, and things quickly cooled down.
Their work made an appearance at last week’s NAFTA negotiations.
When the U.S. government launched the talks with a complaint about Canada’s historic trade surpluses, Canadian officials stood in the nearby lobby of a Washington hotel and started handing out fact sheets showing a trade deficit.
That tactic brings back memories for Kinsella: ”We used to call those ‘heat sheets,” he said. He’d have his team slip sheets under hotel-room doors while reporters were sleeping, hoping to shape the next morning’s coverage.
”You build an incremental case,” Kinsella said.
”That’s how you win a campaign.”