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‘Very unusual’ for White House to try using Trudeau to influence Trump, say observers, but ‘expect more’

Marie-Danielle Smith | May 9, 2017 7:16 PM ET=-

OTTAWA — It is a matter of course for officials in the Prime Minister’s Office and the White House to keep lines of communication open between them, but observers say it was “very unusual” that Trump administration staff last month encouraged Justin Trudeau to try to influence their boss.

In late April, it appeared President Donald Trump was giving serious consideration to scrapping NAFTA, the trade agreement between the U.S., Canada and Mexico that he has repeatedly called the “worst ever.” (It remains unclear whether he was seriously considering it or whether it was a bluff.)

Canadian government sources told the National Post Monday that a White House official took it upon themself to call Trudeau’s office amid Trump’s pondering, asking PMO staff to have Trudeau give Trump a call, so the pro-trade prime minister could talk the president out of withdrawing from NAFTA.

The Canadian Press then reported it had been Trump’s son-in-law, Jared Kushner, the husband of Ivanka Trump and a key White House adviser, who had called Trudeau’s chief of staff, Katie Telford.

The Associated Press confirmed that Kushner had been on the Washington end of the line, but cited an unnamed White House official who claimed the Canadians had instigated the call after news of the preparation of a draft executive order that would dismantle the trade agreement was leaked to news outlets.Regardless of who dialled first, what the reports have in common is a seeming attempt by Kushner to influence Trump, without his knowledge, via a foreign head of government — and close co-operation between the camps to facilitate a call that Trump would later cite as a reason for choosing to renegotiate, rather than kill, NAFTA.While calling on a foreign government to influence the president is “unusual,” it probably doesn’t break any formal rules or laws, according to one legal expert.

“I don’t think there’s a crime here,” said Carlton Lawson, a law professor at the University of California, Davis. The U.S. has a law called the Logan Act, which prohibits citizens “without authority of the United States” from trying to influence foreign governments in “disputes or controversies” involving the U.S. It was passed in 1799 after a Philadelphia state legislator, Dr. George Logan, tried to negotiate directly with French officials to undermine the foreign policy of the party that controlled Congress and the White House. But, Lawson said, the act is ambiguously worded, and not once in its 218 years on the books has it been used to prosecute somebody.

Besides, Lawson said, “the optics would look terrible” for Trump to indict a member of staff, and he wouldn’t fire Kushner, though he “might yell at him.”

Steve Saideman, the Paterson Chair in International Affairs at Carleton University, said it’s “very unusual” that “staffers are using media and other countries to win policy battles.”

“I think it is dangerous because outsiders are being asked to manipulate the president,” he said, noting Kushner must have had “high comfort with Canada” to feel he could set it up.

Saideman said Trudeau should be careful and remain neutral as often as possible — it might not always be in Canada’s interest to poke at Trump when the White House requests it. “Expect four more years of this,” he added.

Eddie Goldenberg, who served as a senior adviser and then chief of staff to prime minister Jean Chrétien from 1993 to 2003, said “there is nothing normal about this White House” and the Trump White House is acting “in a way that nobody has ever before.”

In the past, he said, calls between the American president and the Canadian prime minister would be jointly organized by their national security advisers. It wasn’t “call me in five minutes,” he said. “It was always organized in advance. Usually they knew to a certain extent what they were going to be talking about.”

It’s not clear, he said, to what extent the White House thinks it can use Trudeau to influence Trump. “But there’s no question in my mind, if the president of the United States wants to talk to the prime minister of Canada, the prime minister should respond. … You make the call.”

Colin Robertson, a former diplomat who served in the U.S. and a fellow at the Canadian Global Affairs Institute, said “smart” Canadian administrations have historically established close ties with American counterparts.

Gary Clement/National Post

Gary Clement/National Post

Robertson said under past administrations, it was “fairly normal” for officials to contact each other ahead of time to set up calls between their bosses, and “not uncommon” for staffers to have conversations that weren’t known to the president and prime minister — “the principals don’t need to be informed.”

Being able to have a “frank conversation back and forth” is especially important with an unpredictable president south of the border.

When troubling news leaks, staffers should be comfortable enough with each other that they can “phone across” with such clarifications as, “hey, … don’t get spooked by this, or don’t get angry about this, let me put this in context,” said Robertson.

“You keep as many doors open as you can.”

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