WASHINGTON—U.S. President Donald Trump boasted in a fundraising speech that he made up details about trade in a meeting with Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, according to a recording of the comments.
The leaked recording provided fodder for the American morning talk shows March 15, animating discussions in the U.S. not only about the substance of the trading relationship but also the style of the president.
Trump was overheard telling donors at an event in Missouri the previous night that he insisted to Trudeau that the United States runs a trade deficit with its neighbour to the north—without any idea of whether this is the case.
Trump said on the recording that after Trudeau told him the U.S. does not have a trade deficit with Canada, he replied, “Wrong, Justin, you do,” then added, “I didn’t even know … I had no idea.”
In the recording, first reported by The Washington Post, the president said staffers from each country were sent out to check the prime minister’s claim. He said the staffers concluded Trump was correct.
Trump said the staffers came back and said: “Well, sir, you’re actually right.” He said the U.S. has a deficit once you include energy and lumber trade, “and when you do, we lose $17 billion a year. It’s incredible.”
His own government’s statistics tell a different story. The 2018 White House Economic Report of the President says the U.S. ran a trade surplus of $2.6 billion with Canada on a balance-of-payments basis. The U.S. Trade Representative’s office says the goods and services trade surplus with Canada was $12.5 billion in 2016.
There are different ways to calculate the final number. Canada’s own formula sides with Trump, as it excludes the country of origin in a three-party transaction: Say, a Chinese laptop is shipped through Canada, and into the U.S., the Canadian formula counts it as a Canadian export.
The last U.S. ambassador to Canada under Barack Obama calls the whole debate foolish.
At dispute is an alleged deficit that amounts to less than two per cent of US$630 billion in annual Canada-U.S. trade, and the final result can be made or broken by a small shift in energy prices and currency values.
What bothers Bruce Heyman most is that the president of his country keeps threatening to stifle trade with Canada, and then shows up at meetings without having a grasp of the most basic details.
“What has incensed me is that the president is picking a fight with Canada,” Heyman said in an interview. “Reckless. It’s infuriating to me.”
He contrasted this approach with the president he served: “(Obama) was highly briefed before entering a meeting with the prime minister… President Obama was a voracious consumer of information before making a decision. It’s almost the exact opposite of what I’m seeing now.”
Trump was roasted on some of the U.S. morning TV shows.
Trump’s former NBC colleague and current nemesis Joe Scarborough said he’s no fan of Trudeau, but had to admit the prime minister is right and Trump is wrong: “It is a funny story (Trump told). But it is a lie…. He was lying last night—what a surprise—to his contributors.”
The story led the next show on MSNBC, where host Stephanie Ruhle said: ”That right there is humiliating for this country… This is pathetic. This is humiliating.”
The Washington Post followed up with an item headlined, “Why Trump’s admission that he made stuff up to Justin Trudeau is particularly bad.” It expressed concern about what would happen if the president just decides to ”wing it” in conversations with North Korea.
Trump, meanwhile, wasn’t giving an inch.
”We do have a trade deficit with Canada,” he tweeted Thursday.
”As we do with almost all countries (some of them massive). P.M. Justin Trudeau of Canada, a very good guy, doesn’t like saying that Canada has a surplus vs. the U.S. (negotiating), but they do … they almost all do … and that’s how I know!”
The U.S. does run chronic long-term trade deficits with the world as a whole—but, contrary to the president’s claim, it does have surpluses with many countries.