A bombshell claim of “resistance” to Donald Trump’s presidency inside the White House inserted itself Thursday into Canada’s painstaking march toward a deal on the North American Free Trade Agreement.
Foreign Affairs Minister Chrystia Freeland’s two hours of talks with her U.S. counterpart, trade czar Robert Lighthizer, barely registered in the American capital despite the high-stakes for the continent’s economy.
As Trump fumed, and a full-scale hunt was launched the identity of the anonymous author of a New York Times op-ed piece, Lighthizer was drawn into the stranger-than-fiction drama, joining a series of Trump administration officials who publicly denied authorship and declared their loyalty to the president.
“It does not reflect my views at all, and it does not reflect the views of anyone I know in the Administration. It is a complete and total fabrication,” Lighthizer said in a widely reported written statement.
He joined Vice-President Mike Pence, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and Dan Coats, the director of national intelligence, and others in issuing his disclaimer to being the Washington’s most famous anonymous Beltway politico since Deep Throat during the Watergate scandal.
A block from the White House, where a furious Trump was Tweeting fire at the disloyalty from his inner circle, Freeland and Lighthizer pushed on with talks that cut to the core of North American prosperity.
They issued fresh marching orders for their respective negotiating teams. Freeland maintained the same upbeat tone she has held since arriving in Washington this week to reboot talks with the Trump administration.
“We really are confident, as we have been from the outset, that a deal which is good for Canada, good for the United States and good for Mexico is possible,” Freeland said, as she departed the office of the U.S. Trade Representative on her way to the Canadian Embassy.
Freeland returned to Lighthizer’s office Thursday night for a 20-minute meeting that she said was constructive.
“It was important to discuss a couple of issues face-to-face,” she said, without elaborating.
But with the economic fate of workers and industries in three North American countries hanging in the balance, the New York Times piece sparked questions about how the fallout would affect the bump-and-grind of the NAFTA negotiations.
Derek Burney, who was former prime minister Brian Mulroney’s chief of staff during the original 1988 Canada-U.S. free trade negotiations, said any direct impact was unlikely but Trump remained “the big wild card” in the negotiation.
“We have to hope to catch him between tantrums to get a deal,” said Burney, who along with Mulroney has advised the current Trudeau government on how to negotiate with Trump.
Trump is likely “feeling pressure on many fronts these days and may be frustrated to learn the limits to his authority on trade, hence his warning to Congress ‘not to interfere’,” said Burney, who became Canada’s U.S. ambassador after the original free trade deal.
Canada and the U.S. need to present an agreed-upon text to the U.S. Congress by Oct. 1 in order to join the deal the Trump administration signed with Mexico.
Trump is threatening to move ahead on a deal that excludes Canada, but he also needs a win on trade ahead of midterm elections in November that will test his ability to keep control of Congress.
Flavio Volpe, the president of the Canada’s Automotive Parts Manufacturers’ Association, said he didn’t think the latest bombshell would directly affect the negotiators inside the room.
“But it certainly underscores for all of us observing the talks that it’s not that easy to do this negotiation. It’s a compressed timeline with an ever-changing counterparty,” said Volpe, who was in Washington on Thursday for meetings with auto industry representatives on the possible impact of Trump’s threat to impose tariffs on Canadian automobiles.
Trump has already imposed hefty tariffs on Canadian and Mexican steel and aluminum, using a section of U.S. trade law that gives him executive authority to do that in the name of national security.
Freeland reiterated her view Thursday that the fate of those tariffs was separate from the NAFTA talks, and she urged the administration to lift the “unjustified and illegal” action.
During the day, she and Lighthizer pored over results from their front-line negotiators who held a long stretch of talks that started Wednesday night and finished in the early morning hours of Thursday.
Freeland stuck to her mantra of not wanting to negotiate in public – an agreement struck with the tough-talking Lighthizer as an act of good faith.
The two sides still have to resolve differences on three key issues: dairy, culture and the Chapter 19 dispute resolution mechanism.
The goal of this week’s talks is to reach a deal by Dec. 1 so Congress can give its approval to a revised three-country NAFTA before Mexico’s new president takes office.