In an act of non-traditional “Sharpie diplomacy”, U.S. president Donald Trump sent at least two handwritten notes to Prime Minister Justin Trudeau back in 2017, according to Axios.
A Canadian government official tells Global News the reports in Axios are “not inaccurate.”
The president ripped off the cover of a May 2017 Bloomberg Businessweek featuring Trudeau that asked whether he was “the Anti-Trump,” according to Axios. Trump took a silver Sharpie to it and wrote something like “Looking good! Hope it’s not true!” and mailed it to the Canadian embassy in Washington.
Canadian ambassador David MacNaughton apparently thought it was a prank at first — but was told by the White House it was indeed a message from the president.
WATCH: David MacNaughton talks ‘mixed emotions’ leaving U.S. ambassador role
In December of that year, when relations had become more tense over the negotiation of the new NAFTA trade deal, Axios reports Trump sent Trudeau a document showing the U.S. had a trade deficit with Canada, and writing something on the document like “not good” — again with a Sharpie.
Trump’s numbers only included the United States’ deficit in goods trade, and ignored the surplus in services, which, overall, created a surplus for the U.S. This was outlined by the United States’ own numbers, from the United States Trade Representative. Around the same time, Trump told a rally in Florida the U.S. has a trade deficit with Canada. Trudeau wrote back, telling Trump his numbers were off.
Trudeau included one of the USTR’s documents that backed him up, circled a number showing a surplus, and drew a smiley face beside it.
One Canadian government official speaking on background tells Global News there wasn’t a second Sharpie volley from Trump as reported by Axios, but confirms the prime minister did send a note in response to the rally, adding it was handwritten on card stock with official letterhead. That source says the Bloomberg cover note was seen as classic Trump in written form, and says, if anything, the Canadian government saw it as amusing.
A second government source said the overall reports in Axios “are not inaccurate.” A third, meanwhile, also speaking on background, sent Global News the same statement that ran in the Axios story.
“We’re not going to comment on whether or what paper was exchanged between our two countries. There was a lot of back and forth. That said, it is certainly true that there were disagreements between our two countries about the figures, and we repeatedly pointed to USTR and US Commerce’s own figures. On the Bloomberg cover, no comment, but we don’t deny it.”
WATCH: Trudeau says U.S. already enjoys massive trade surplus with Canada on steel
The White House did not respond to a Global News request for comment.
“Presidents do from time to time go off script — Obama and his famous trip through the Ottawa market to buy cookies — all of these things are things that throw us off,” U.S.-Canada expert Laura Dawson told Global News. The head of the Wilson Center’s Canada Institute says writing a handwritten note on its own is not reinventing the wheel — former US President Bill Clinton, for example, was known for his handwritten letters.
“They also reflect the fact that the president is a human being. Not highly scripted, not highly predictable and in the case of this president, extremely unpredictable. And I think Canada’s probably getting it about right in terms of how to respond,” Dawson said.
“I think what they decided to do was probably best of both worlds. It was more formal than a Sharpie marker response, but it was still friendly, it still had an emoji, and most importantly it gave as good as it got. So it stayed friendly in tone, but it did remind the president that hey, the U.S. has a trade surplus with Canada.”
Former Canadian diplomat, Colin Robertson, tells Global News he had previously heard of Trump communicating in an “unconventional fashion,” and says it underlines the fact that Canada, and the rest of the world, has had to adjust to this president.
But in the face of “huge challenge,” Robertson says he thinks the Trudeau government has done well with the U.S. relationship overall, referencing NAFTA negotiations and threats to cars, steel, aluminum and uranium.
“I think Trudeau and his team worked very hard to create relationships with those around Trump and to go around Trump through his base by using our networks of consuls-general, working with premiers, provincial legislators and, in D.C., having minsters and MPs work their congressional counterparts.
“I think that is a permanent change in how we do business and I credit David MacNaughton with quietly steering this effort as our quarterback in the field.”
Canadian Ambassador MacNaughton, meanwhile, just announced he is resigning at the end of August.
While Trump was critical of Foreign Affairs Minister Chrystia Freeland in public during NAFTA negotiations, Axios reports his comments went much further behind closed doors.
In September 2018, Trump told a news conference, “We’re very unhappy with the negotiations and the negotiating style of Canada. We don’t like their representative very much.”
But Axios reports Trump called Freeland a “nasty woman” in private.
When asked about this, Freeland’s spokesperson sent Global News a statement that didn’t directly address the allegation.
“It is our duty as a government to stand up for the national interest and for our values. What matters is the results we achieve for Canadians,” wrote Adam Austen.
“In the NAFTA negotiations, we resisted onerous U.S. demands and succeeded in getting a good new deal, which retains privileged access for Canadians to the US market.”
Austen points out that Canada was successful in having the US tariffs on steel and aluminum lifted, “while these tariffs remain in place for most other countries.”
— With files from Mike Le Couteur