SIMI VALLEY, Calif. – Prime Minister Justin Trudeau took direct aim Friday night at a key anti-trade talking point from U.S. President Donald Trump, saying that trade couldn’t be reduced to something akin to the score in a hockey game.
Trump has repeatedly threatened to tear up the free trade pact between Canada, the U.S. and Mexico, believing that a trade imbalance is to blame for the loss of millions of jobs.
In a speech at the Ronald Reagan presidential library Friday night, Trudeau ran through a series of statistics to show how much Canada buys from the United States, and how much of Canadian oil and energy products flows south of the border.
WATCH: PM to invoke Ronald Reagan as part of NAFTA pitch
But the prime minister, speaking in a building named for the president who signed the landmark Canada-U.S. free trade deal, said the sum total of North American free trade couldn’t “be reduced to a balance of trade statistics or a tariff rate.”
“Simply put, if trade between Canada and the U.S. is a bad idea, then there are no good ideas,” Trudeau said during the speech to local and state legislators.
Trudeau stood on the ground floor of the Air Force One pavilion, his back to a large wall of windows providing a view of the surrounding hills. Overhead was a massive symbol of American diplomacy: the presidential plane that carried Reagan and six other presidents.
The Liberal leader’s full-throated support of the free trade that Reagan trumpeted will cause a shake-up among American conservatives, particularly think-tanks that have influence over President Donald Trump’s policies, said Sean Speer, a senior fellow at the Macdonald-Laurier Institute.
Speer said the speech would also make old-school Republicans rethink their backing of Trump, who has repeatedly vowed to end free trade with Canada, which Reagan secured in the 1980s.
Trudeau has tried to make the case to Americans during this four-day swing through the United States that trade has been a boon for their country, despite their concerns. In Chicago, he suggested that ending that trade would cause economic disruption that could hurt Trump politically.
WATCH: ‘No deal might be better for Canada,’ Trudeau says on NAFTA talks
Trump’s threats to tear up NAFTA under the mantra of “America First” have cast a shadow over negotiations, which are stuck on key issues around auto parts, a sunset clause, and how to resolve disputes between governments and companies.
Trudeau said negotiators have already agreed on three chapters – rules around competition, small and medium-sized enterprises and anti-corruption measures. He said negotiators are also within range of closing “several more bread-and-butter chapters” at the next meeting.
There are still two rounds of talks before the congressional midterm elections in the United States, giving Trudeau a chance to pitch trade to people up for re-election and those in state legislatures, said Bruce Heyman, former U.S. ambassador to Canada.
“This is a very tricky moment. The president is completely unpredictable, he’s making decisions that make no long-term sense,” Heyman said outside the Reagan library.
“If we make the political heat too hot for the president, maybe he’ll make a decision that would enable us to stay in.”
John Heubusch, executive director of the Reagan library and institute, said Reagan would have likely agreed with Trump on the idea of putting American interests at the forefront of negotiations, but would diverge on the idea that the U.S. economy could make a go of it absent trade.
“This can’t be America alone, especially with a trading partner as vital as Canada,” he said.
WATCH: Canada still facing ‘significant gap’ in NAFTA negotiations
Reagan was president when the United States and Canada signed a landmark free trade deal in 1988, a forerunner to the North American deal reached a few years later. A copy of the agreement, along with a Reagan autograph, were presented to Trudeau ahead of his speech.
The two-term Republican president was also a good friend of then-prime minister Brian Mulroney, who Trudeau said was tougher with Reagan than many believe. Trudeau said his father, former prime minister Pierre Trudeau, had a more nuanced relationship with Reagan, but one that was no less constructive – similar to the younger Trudeau’s relationship with Trump.
Heubusch said the chairman of the institute’s board of trustees, Washington Post publisher Fred Ryan, raised the idea of Trudeau visiting the centre during a recent meeting with Mulroney.
Trudeau’s team likely couldn’t pass up the opportunity to use Reagan’s image as part of their free-trade blitz, particularly for Republican lawmakers and voters who have granted the former president mythological status.
“One thing that the Trudeau government is brilliant at is its messaging. It gets the idea of symbols,” said Kathy Brock, a professor in the school of policy studies at Queen’s University in Kingston, Ont.
“It’s about building ties and contrasting the old conservative United States with the conservative United States under Donald Trump,” she said.
“That plays into the two-pronged strategy of putting a little pressure on the current president and Congress to think carefully about our trade ties, but then also reminding the United States of a president and a legacy that many people view with some affection now.”