Prime Minister Justin Trudeau agonized over what might seem like an inconsequential detail before his first meeting with President Donald Trump: how to shake hands.
During a February 2017 flight to Washington to meet the president, Trudeau was fixated with being viewed as standing his ground without antagonizing Trump.
So the prime minister spent part of the flight practicing his handshake with senior aides.
The combination shoulder grip-handshake he settled on didn’t just avoid the cringe-inducing exchange Japan’s Shinzo Abe endured a few days earlier. It also offered a snapshot of Trudeau’s approach to Trump: to seek contrast, not confrontation, and to be viewed as standing his ground, politely, with a dominant alpha male American leader.
Now Trudeau will test his relationship with Trump as he launches an unexpectedly difficult Canadian reelection campaign.
Ahead of Trudeau’s tougher-than-expected fall campaign, he has hinted that he intends to present his Liberal party as an antidote to Trump. Trump is a perfect political punching bag for a center-left candidate stumping in Canada. He’s unpopular and some of his policies offend the most sacred tenets of Canadian liberalism.
But Trudeau can’t go too far: Trashing Trump directly carries major risks, because the president holds levers that can pulverize the Canadian economy and either has pulled those levers or threatened to. The northern neighbor already faces threats from the president on a trade deal, tariffs and Cuba sanctions.
The dilemma for Trudeau shows just how prominent Trump is on the world stage both substantively and psychologically — nearly every world leader facing an election has to send a message to their country about how they will deal with Trump.
For Trudeau, the relationship has remained functional despite the friction.
A few weeks ago, with Trudeau dogged by an ethics scandal, Trump even called the prime minister out of the blue to offer his encouragement, according to two Canadian officials familiar with the details of the call. Trump took a shot at the media, commiserating with the PM about their poor press coverage.
But Canadian Ambassador to the U.S. David MacNaughton warned at a Washington event last month that the bilateral relationship will be a central election theme in part because of lingering U.S. tariffs on steel and aluminum: “And it won’t be a really positive discussion.”
So what will Trudeau say as the election gets underway?
MacNaughton later elaborated that he expects the Canadian parties to jostle over who’s best to deal with the U.S., and part of that, he said, is “standing up to the Americans when they do things that aren’t right.”
And one current MP who requested anonymity to speak candidly said Trudeau so far has followed advice from a predecessor that maintaining good U.S. relations is a top responsibility for any Canadian PM. But, he added, “I wonder how long it’ll last in a [Canadian] election year.”
A challenge from Day One
Trudeau began wrestling with his strategy for dealing with Trump even before the inauguration.
The morning after Trump’s 2016 win, Trudeau met with his party’s caucus, which included more than 180 MPs and, according to two lawmakers present, issued a warning: Don’t insult the president. Trudeau underscored that instruction with a lesson from history about the colleague who stomped on a doll of George W. Bush in 2004: That episode touched off an unseemly feud with the then-prime minister, and the MP was expelled from the Liberal party.
Trudeau was at first so concerned about the potential for Trump-triggered crises that he not only rearranged his Cabinet, he also created a rapid-response unit to deal specifically with all things Trump. The dedicated Canada-U.S. unit operates like a campaign war room within Trudeau’s office and is run by the person who ran the prime minister’s 2015 election war room. The team coordinates Canada’s response to things like Trump threatening to impose tariffs and rip up trade deals.
Trudeau tread lightly, taking only discreet digs at Trump policies he found offensive.
Just days into Trump’s presidency and his installation of a travel ban on residents from six countries, Trudeau subtweeted Trump: “Canadians will welcome you, regardless of your faith,” he wrote, though he has since dialed down the open-door message.
Trudeau’s Foreign Minister Chrystia Freeland was blunter than her boss in blasting Trump’s worldview in speeches back home in 2017 and in Washington in 2018. She even gave Trump’s trade representative a book about how nationalism, protectionism and anti-globalism caused World War I and unleashed the most blood-soaked decades in human history.
In May 2018, Trudeau used a commencement address at Yankee Stadium in Trump’s hometown to blast nationalism.
“Humanity has to fight our tribal mindset,” Trudeau said. “The leadership we need most today and in the years to come is leadership that brings people together. … [versus] the aggressive nationalism, the identity politics that have grown so common of late. It’s harder of course. It’s always been easier to divide than unite.”
Trump lobbed a more direct blow at the June 2018 G7 in Quebec.
Complaints from Trudeau about steel tariffs set the president off. Trump called Trudeau “dishonest and weak,” and White House adviser Peter Navarro said Trudeau had earned a “special place in hell” for crossing the American leader.
A few months later, Trump made clear his feelings about Freeland: “We don’t like [Canada’s] representative very much.”
Things remain tense, between the the lingering tariffs and the unratified trade deal and pressure from China on Canada because it arrested a Huawei executive at the request of the U.S.
In keeping with his behavior during Trump’s early days, the prime minister more recently spoke out against anonymous foreign leaders whom he accused of stoking bigotry worldwide. He raised the phantom foreign foes in one campaign-style speech to fellow Liberals in April. “Anger is what conservative parties around the world are tapping into,” Trudeau said, criticizing international politicians he said would rather bash immigrants than deal with hard challenges like climate change.
Trudeau links his opponents to polarizing conservative politicians at home and abroad, with his favorite foils being ex-Canadian PM Stephen Harper, Ontario Premier Doug Ford and anonymous race-baiting foreigners. In another speech about the massacre of Muslims in New Zealand in March, he also blamed foreign politicians.
“Sadly, the leaders of the world bear some responsibility,” Trudeau told the House of Commons. “In too many cases, they actively court those who spread [hatred]. … The dog-whistle politics … it has to stop.”
A member of Parliament from Trudeau’s party predicted that during the Canadian election season (officially expected to start in September and last about five weeks), the prime minister will avoid direct conflict but won’t shy from calling out certain Trump policies.
“What’s happened now is the president has lost the respect of the Canadian people,” Liberal MP Bob Nault said.
“We are very concerned about the way certain governments are operating and dividing their constituents into groups — those they like, and those they don’t,” Nault said. “I don’t think you necessarily have to use someone’s name to get the message out,” he added.
Canadian Conservatives cry foul
Trudeau’s domestic opponents say that’s a bad idea.
The Conservatives’ foreign affairs critic Erin O’Toole said Trudeau has no valid reason to invoke Trump in the campaign, since the party holds vastly different views from Trump on immigration and trade.
“We should not give in to the Liberal attempt to use the U.S. as a wedge in our election,” O’Toole said. “We’re electing a prime minister of Canada.
“We’re not holding a referendum on Donald Trump.”
Another concern for Trudeau is that he also faces pressure from parties to his left, which habitually club the prime minister for any perceived similarity to Trump.
For example, Trudeau does support some oil pipelines, though not all. And while Trudeau has ramped up immigration overall, he’s also run ads urging migrants not to come to Canada and even tightened asylum procedures.
The last time Trudeau’s party tried invoking an unpopular GOP president as a campaign issue, in the hope of consolidating the left-leaning vote, it didn’t work.
Liberal Prime Minister Paul Martin spent his campaign criticizing Bush over climate policy and a lumber trade dispute. The U.S. ambassador to Ottawa at the time complained publicly and in 2005 sent a cable back home explaining the politics.
In the end, the anti-Bush message fell flat, the Liberals lost, and they spent a decade out of power.
Article originally published on POLITICO Magazine