A Trump decoder ring, 100 days in

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April 26, 2017

A Trump decoder ring, 100 days in

Published in The Hill Times on April 26, 2017. Click here to read the original.

OTTAWA—When Justin Trudeau met Donald Trump for the first time back in February, it was all smiles, handshakes and cross-border hugs. The Trudeau team had done an excellent job with the White House in paving the way for a friendly and productive meeting. There was none of the belligerence that Trump had shown Mexico, and on Canada’s biggest concern—the renegotiation of NAFTA—the president said it would only involve “tweaking.” Canadians breathed a collective sigh of relief.

Just two months later, we are knee-deep in Trump anger. Calling Canada a “disgrace” for shutting out American ultra-filtered milk, he said last week, “We can’t let Canada or anybody else take advantage and do what they did to our workers and our farmers. Included in there is lumber—timber—and energy.”

So, what happened? How did Canada go so quickly from best buddy to “bête noir?” There are several reasons and many moving parts. So, let’s start with where the president sits right now, 100 days into his presidency this week:

  • The White House has divided into warring factions, each leaking frantically to smear each other and gain the upper hand. Several cabinet picks were forced to or chose to withdraw, and several hundred sub-cabinet nominations for top jobs have yet to be made.
  • The Russia connections to key current and former Trump operatives circle ever closer and more ominously; the ultimate reckoning may not end well for the president.
  • Trump finds himself dealing with three disparate and warring forces in Congress: the Democrats, mainstream Republicans, and the GOP’s ideologically-drive Freedom Caucus.
  • After Trump’s executive order on immigration was hijacked by the courts, the new administration’s first major legislative initiative, the killing of Obamacare, crashed and burned publicly and embarrassingly. There’s still no funding for “The Wall” to redefine the border with Mexico. Up next is tax reform, and it’s just about as complex as fixing health care.

While the president did get his Supreme Court nominee, Neil Gorsuch, safely on the court, the bottom line is that many of the constituencies that Trump courted with his florid campaign rhetoric wait in vain for their pay-off. At the same time, Trump’s public approval ratings have been plummeting to unheard depths for a president three months in office.

On softwood lumber and U.S. milk exports, both are plain old one-off trade disputes. One side takes steps to limit imports of the other guy’s product, and the battle is joined. As a trade irritant, softwood has been around since trees and stumpage were invented; it recurs like clockwork once a decade. We do things differently, they don’t like it, so it’s “see you in court.” Milk is more recent, but former president Barack Obama was just as concerned about Canada as Trump is; he raised it directly but privately with Trudeau each time they met.

Not surprisingly, electoral politics played a role in the president’s shouting about milk during last week’s trip to Wisconsin. Not just home to angry milk farmers, it’s one of several states that abandoned their long-term support for the Democrats to elect Trump last fall. If he doesn’t keep Wisconsin on side, GOP prospects in next year’s mid-term elections plus the next presidential election in 2020 don’t look good.

Mr. Trump’s raising of energy last Thursday puzzled many in Canada. He’s never in the past expressed concern about the fact we provide 43 per cent of U.S. crude oil imports, at a discounted price and without the drawback of being governed by a dictator. And he did approve the final U.S. portion of the Keystone XL pipeline, which President Obama had killed.

It’s quite possible Canadian energy was on the president’s mind for another reason—his revenue problem. The president’s personal and corporate tax cuts are estimated to cost $1.1-trillion, and the Republicans’ aversion for raising the deficit means tax reform must be revenue neutral.

Hence the idea of a “border adjustment tax”—a tax on just about everything the U.S. imports—with the revenues paying for the tax cuts. With Canadian exports of crude oil, refined petroleum, natural gas, electricity, and uranium to the U.S. worth $102-billion in 2015, a tax on our energy imports is going to be a tax cow.

The final point to remember about President Trump is that he’s just like a politician, only louder. In his 1987 best-seller The Art of the Deal, he laid out his approach: “[W]hen people treat me badly or unfairly or try to take advantage of me, my general attitude, all my life, has been to fight back very hard.”

As the only president in U.S. history never to have spent a day in public service before achieving the highest office, he is clearly following his own advice.

Geoff Norquay is a principal at the Earnscliffe Strategy Group. He is a former senior adviser to prime minister Brian Mulroney and director of communications for then-opposition leader Stephen Harper.