Justin Trudeau and Conrad Black don’t have much in common, but both of them have had a pretty good week with President Donald Trump.
While Black got a presidential pardon, Trudeau won what he and his government were boasting was a “full lift” of steel and aluminum tariffs. On both counts, the good news came in no small measure because of relationships forged with the unpredictable U.S. president.
In Black’s case, the allegiance is not a big surprise. As Black himself said, he and Trump go back a long way. Trump, then a private citizen, had even offered to come and testify on Black’s behalf in the 2007 trial that sent the former newspaper magnate to a U.S. prison for 42 months. When he gave the pardon, Trump reportedly told Black that he got “a bad rap.”
With Trudeau, Trump also seems to be wanting to help out a friend north of the Canada-U.S. border who’s getting a bad rap — with China. The two leaders are currently embroiled in their own intense, high-stakes fights with China, which have spun unexpectedly off into a deepened bond — at least for now — between Trump and Trudeau.
They have had three long phone calls within the past week, each lasting 20 to 25 minutes, according to government sources. Trudeau initiated this latest series of calls as Canada was watching U.S.-China talks get stalled over tariffs last week.
Government sources say it was a good time to remind Trump of the Canada-U.S. friendship, and the huge sticking points remaining in it — namely, the new free-trade deal that remains unratified here and in Washington, and, of course, the steel and aluminum tariffs that Trump levelled on Canada nearly a year ago.
It was those very tariffs, and Trudeau’s open criticism of them at a news conference after a G7 summit in Charlevoix in June 2018, which famously sent Trump into an anti-Trudeau tantrum in public and on social media.
One Trump tweet from that time would become permanently burned into the history of Canada-U.S. relations, prompting many to wonder whether some irreparable harm had been done.
“PM Justin Trudeau of Canada acted so meek and mild during our @G7 meetings only to give a news conference after I left saying that, ‘US Tariffs were kind of insulting’ and he ‘will not be pushed around.’ Very dishonest & weak.”
Trudeau didn’t reply in kind. He told me in a December interview he’d been tempted, but restrained himself. “As satisfying as it might be to sort of let it rip in public or respond to personal attacks or personal comments with personal comments, does that help me do my job? Does that help Canadians? No. So I put that aside.”
Now, a year later, the two are apparently on very friendly terms again, sources say, and their phone calls include conversations of business and friendship. Trump reportedly chats to Trudeau about his family, including his mother Margaret Trudeau, who he knows, as well as about the items on the Canada-U.S. to-do list, which were focused on trade and tariffs this past week.
Trudeau said on Friday that there was “no breakthrough moment” that led to the tariffs being lifted, but from all accounts, the escalating tension with China for both countries has broken down some barriers between Trump and Trudeau.
All together, the two have spoken about 40 times in the 35 months that Trump has been president, Canadian government sources say, and the latest three — last Thursday and Friday and again this Friday — were among the longest and most complex.
While Trump and Trudeau couldn’t be farther apart politically, they do share some personal traits that help them get along, say those who have witnessed their dealings. They both experienced fame before they came to elected office, for instance, and are seasoned to the ups and downs of celebrity. They both believe they were elected to shake up the status quo in their respective capitals, although it’s a matter of very polarized debate at the moment whether either has done so.
In a couple of weeks, former U.S. president Barack Obama will be in Ottawa for a big speech to thousands of Canadian political junkies, no doubt feeling wistful about those heady days of the Trudeau-Obama “bromance.” As it happens, U.S. Vice-President Mike Pence will also be in town that week, as he announced on Twitter on Friday.
No one’s ever going to call Trump and Trudeau’s relationship a bromance, or even an old friendship, like the one Trump has with Conrad Black. But out of their mutual interests on China at the moment, Trump and Trudeau have forged something that worked enough to get them past last year’s turmoil over tariffs.
Susan Delacourt is the Star’s Ottawa bureau chief and a columnist covering national politics. Reach her via email: email@example.com or follow her on Twitter: @susandelacourt