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WASHINGTON — If Donald Trump deploys the big bomb during upcoming NAFTA negotiations, and threatens to blow up the continental trade agreement, a unit within the office of Prime Minister Justin Trudeau will be assigned to try disarming it.
The Canadian government has created an election-style nerve centre to handle White House-related challenges and officials who describe its operations say it has about eight regular staff: two former trade officials, two senior PMO officials, an ambassador, a writer, a cabinet minister, and it’s run by a young staffer with a reputation for staying cool while smothering political fires.
The most blistering inferno it’s preparing to confront is a scenario where the president threatens NAFTA. Everybody involved anticipates the threat level from Trump will rise with the heat of negotiations.
A well-connected Washington lobbyist milling about last week’s talks said a Trump pullout threat is virtually assured: “Almost 100%.” Trade lawyer Dan Ujczo said it’s a logical play for the president: ”The threat of withdrawal is his key negotiating leverage.”
However one former U.S. trade official says the president has shown himself too eager to play his best card. He said the president has weakened his hand with an April tactical error, when he threatened to blow up NAFTA four months before negotiations started.
Robert Holleyman said Canada and Mexico got a valuable heads up on what would happen next: the business community panicked, lawmakers were miffed, and Washington made clear it preferred saving NAFTA.
”It was, at a minimum, terrible timing,” said Holleyman, Barack Obama’s deputy United States Trade Representative.
”You do that at the 11th hour in the negotiation — not at the throat-clearing stage … I suspect President Trump will be unable to play that card again. And if he does play it, it won’t be as strong as it would’ve been … The Canadians and Mexicans will say, ‘You … will face a huge backlash in your own Congress.”’
Congress definitely holds some power: It could refuse to cancel the law implementing NAFTA, which would set up court fights between the various parties including the president, industries, and possibly lawmakers.
It’s the job of that Ottawa unit to prevent that messy scenario.
The Canada-U.S. unit resembles, in several ways, a campaign war room — though its members hate that term. It gathers data on key constituencies — for instance, it collects American politicians’ opinions on issues and plugs them into a database.
It plans outreach efforts. It co-ordinates rapid response.
All the relationship-building in recent months involving ministers criss-crossing the U.S. for hundreds of meetings would be deployed in the event of a crisis. For example: Should Trump try ending NAFTA, instructions might quickly go out to Canadian minister X to call U.S. state governor Y to lobby friendly Washington official Z.
That order would come from the centre.
The idea for a dedicated unit came before Trump’s inauguration, from PMO officials Gerald Butts and Katie Telford, longtime Ontario provincial political officials who had used the approach before on top issues.
”This is the unit that spends 365 days a year, 24 hours a day, seven days a week, thinking about this — trying to anticipate every possibility,” said one official.
”The U.S. file is … so super-hot that you can take the slightest thing and turn it into a huge story that’s in every newspaper in North America. It’s really important to have the right person (handling it).”
Enter Brian Clow.
He was chief of staff to Chrystia Freeland when she was trade minister, but that’s not the principal reason he was brought in. What senior officials like was his penchant for staying cool, and working fast, in the Liberal election war room in 2015.
Clow would not speak for this story.
But someone who trained him in working war rooms was happy to share some thoughts about him and the job. It was Warren Kinsella who brought the modern campaign war room to Canada in 1993, modelled on Bill Clinton’s 1992 run, and who also authored, ”Kicking Ass In Canadian Politics.”
Kinsella demands three attributes from war-room staff: Keeping your mouth shut about the war room. Working fast. Doing thorough research.
These campaign operations shape news coverage by providing key components of a story, quickly, to journalists operating in a tougher environment of 24-hour news and declining research budgets: quotes, facts, and people willing to be interviewed.
”(Clinton aide James) Carville told me, ‘The media atom has split.’ … You can’t just take (reporters) out to lunch and spin them and the story appears two days later,”’ Kinsella said.
”(A war room is) basically a newsroom.”
It also provides a central hub so different offices are in contact, and don’t contradict each other. The Canada-U.S. unit includes the PMO’s Butts and Telford, Freeland, ambassador to Washington David MacNaughton, and writer Michael Den Tandt.
Kinsella was impressed with Clow’s speed, cool, and ability to pump out video content while he worked on the 2007 and 2011 Ontario Liberal campaigns.
The Trump mission is infinitely harder, Kinsella said.
Kinsella joked that in elections all his job entailed was pulling pins from grenades and lobbying them. This team must prevent explosions, while working with thousands of officials, multiple government departments, two countries, industry groups, one global economic superpower, and an unpredictable president.
The unit got to conduct early test runs.
When Trump complained about Canadian dairy and lumber, and threatened a NAFTA pullout, it handled the response. The Canadian side kept the temperature down; it responded to heated rhetoric with statistics and telephone calls, and things quickly cooled down.
”They can’t declare war on Trump,” Kinsella said. ”In this situation you can’t throw hand grenades — we’re David, they’re Goliath.”
NAFTA negotiations last week offered a glimpse of the unit’s work.
The U.S. government began by complaining about Canada’s historic trade surpluses. Canadian officials were later in the lobby, handing out fact sheets showing a trade deficit.
”We used to call those ‘heat sheets,” Kinsella explained. He’d have his team slip them under hotel-room doors while reporters were sleeping, so they might shape the next day’s news.
”You build an incremental case,” Kinsella said.
”That’s how you win a campaign.”
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