OTTAWA—Prime Minister Justin Trudeau lands in Washington Wednesday on a two-track charm offensive.
The Canadian prime minister needs U.S. President Donald Trump’s help to free detained Canadians in China and ease trade restrictions Beijing has slapped on Canadian exports.
But Trudeau may also aim to help Trump persuade the president’s critics in the Democrat-led Congress to pass the renegotiated North American trade deal.
“In some ways Justin Trudeau is coming to Washington to do diplomacy for Donald Trump with Nancy Pelosi,” said Laura Dawson, director of the Wilson Center’s Canada Institute.
Time is extremely tight for ratification of the new NAFTA, known in the U.S. as the USMCA or United States-Mexico-Canada Agreement, and it will all come down to Pelosi, the Speaker of the House of Representatives, whose Democrat members are insisting they want tougher enforcement of environmental and labour rules in the new agreement.
“I think there’s probably a landing strip for the NAFTA to be ratified in all three countries; Canada and Mexico are easier, the U.S. is the most difficult,” said Dawson.
That’s where Trudeau could come in.
“The Democrats are dragging their feet, and I think having Justin Trudeau here assuring the Democrats that he’s a progressive, they’re progressive, he’s certain that it (the USMCA) has got everything that it needs on environment and labour and that getting it passed now is more important than waiting.”
If ratified, the new continental trade pact would include protections for the environment and labour rules within the agreement itself, not in a side letter, meaning standards can be enforced through NAFTA dispute panels.
Dawson says she is “as optimistic as I have ever been, but I’m not highly optimistic” it will get ratified this year, but there is a “very narrow window.”
Pelosi, she says, has her own electoral calculations to make.
“The one thing she will keep in mind is that no matter how charming Justin Trudeau is and how genuine he is about environment and labour, Canadians don’t vote in U.S. elections. She’s all about winning the next election.”
Trudeau portrayed his trip as a working visit Wednesday before leaving Ottawa, a prelude to a “big G20” summit next week in Japan.
He told reporters there will also be “a big conversation about the path of ratification of the new NAFTA and we’re going to make sure that we’re keeping in step with them.
“We have an ability to recall Parliament if we need to. We will also make sure that we’re monitoring the pace at which the Americans are ratifying the process.”
As the Star reported last week, Trudeau will try to enlist Trump’s aid directly before the U.S. president meets with Chinese President Xi Jinping at the G20 in Osaka next week.
He hopes Trump will see the U.S. advantage of seeking the release of Canadians detained on vague national security charges, two other Canadian men on death row, and apparent retaliatory trade restrictions on Canadian pork, beef and soy exports to China after Canada arrested Meng Wanzhou, the executive of China’s Huawei telecoms giant, at the request of Trump’s Justice Department.
“Our dispute with China essentially emanates from the arrest of Meng Wanzhou which was an extradition request carried out for the Americans,” said Conservative foreign affairs critic Erin O’Toole.
O’Toole said Trudeau needs to come away from the Washington trip with two confirmations: that tariffs against Canada (still threatened against uranium exports) and trade disruptions will stop, and that Trump will directly raise Canada’s concerns about the detained Canadians with Xi.
He said Trudeau claims he has talked to a lot of other allies who are supposedly “onside” with Canada in protesting China’s “arbitrary arrest and detention” of Michael Kovrig and Michael Spavor. But he says, “what does onside mean? We’ve not been able to see an ally stand up and try to apply pressure on Beijing. The key ally that could is the U.S. president.”
O’Toole said that the Conservative party supports the newly renegotiated NAFTA but if there are any substantial changes, he wants the ability for the Opposition to address those changes in Parliament.
“It’s clear — (U.S. Trade) Ambassador (Robert) Lighthizer appeared at Congress yesterday — that this is still not a done deal. So I would like some assurance that if the negotiations are still going on, if there are substantial changes, that we have the ability to address those changes and perhaps make additional changes.”
Trudeau will meet with U.S. business, labour and political leaders at a reception the Canadian embassy is hosting in Washington this evening.
On Thursday, he sits down for a one-on-one meeting with Trump, after which Trump and his senior cabinet members will host a high-level luncheon for Trudeau and his own senior cabinet and PMO officials.
Among the U.S. officials attending the lunch are Vice-President Mike Pence, Lighthizer, Trump’s national security adviser John Bolton, Trump’s senior adviser Jared Kushner, press secretary Sarah Sanders, economic policy adviser Larry Kudlow, and Trump’s outgoing ambassador to Canada, Kelly Craft, whom he’s nominated to the UN.
Trudeau’s team will include Foreign Affairs Minister Chrystia Freeland, Finance Minister Bill Morneau, Defence Minister Harjit Sajjan, Canada’s ambassador in Washington, David MacNaughton, Trudeau chief of staff Katie Telford, advisers Brian Clow and Ben Chin, national security and intelligence adviser Greta Bossenmaier, PCO foreign policy and defence adviser David Morrison, and deputy ambassador in Washington Kirsten Hillman.
Following that meeting with administration officials, Trudeau will meet Pelosi on Capitol Hill. After that meeting, he will also meet with the Republican leader in the senate, Sen. Mitch McConnell.
Tonda MacCharles is an Ottawa-based reporter covering federal politics. Follow her on Twitter: @tondamacc