Ambassador David MacNaiughton’s legacy

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‘In-depth’ understanding of Congress, Capitol Hill outreach to be part of MacNaughton’s D.C. legacy, say experts

By Neil Moss      
David MacNaughton ‘made it a priority’ to understand who the key U.S. influencers were and which Canadian would be best to deliver the message, says former PMO Canada-U.S. war room staffer Diamond Isinger.
Members of the House of Representatives and the Senate played a key role in advocating that Donald Trump abandon steel and aluminum tariffs he had placed on Canada. The Hill Times file photograph

When David MacNaughton departs his post as Canada’s ambassador to the United States at the end of the month, he will be remembered for the important links he made with Congress, say trade experts and politicos.

In the midst of the precarious renegotiation of NAFTA with the volatile Trump administration, Canada shifted its eyes towards Capitol Hill, under encouragement from Mr. MacNaughton that Prime Minister Justin Trudeau (Papineau, Que.) and his cabinet ought to engage with U.S. legislators directly.

“I do think that will be part of MacNaughton’s legacy,” said Colin Robertson, a former Canadian diplomat.

“While others appreciated it, he realized it was the only way we’re going to succeed in saving the NAFTA, we had to work around the administration,” said Mr. Robertson, who sits on the international trade deputy minister’s NAFTA advisory council.

David MacNaughton formed a ‘very positive’ relationship with his American counterpart, Kelly Craft, who had connections to key U.S. lawmakers. Photograph courtesy of Twitter

Mr. MacNaughton took his post at the Canadian Embassy on Washington, D.C.’s iconic Pennsylvania Avenue—a stone’s throw away from Capitol Hill—in March 2016, during the closing days of the Obama administration, but the incoming Trump administration would complicate his job.

As Canada renegotiated NAFTA and implored the U.S. to remove tariffs on steel and aluminum, cabinet ministers, like Foreign Affairs Minister Chrystia Freeland (University-Rosedale, Ont.), met with influential American lawmakers including Republican Senator Chuck Grassley, chair of the Senate Finance Committee and the Senate’s second highest-ranking official as president pro tempore, and Democratic Representative Earl Blumenauer, chair of the House Ways and Means Trade Subcommittee.

When Mr. Trudeau was in Washington in June meeting with U.S. President Donald Trump on the progress towards implementing the United States–Mexico–Canada Agreement (USMCA), he also met with Democratic House Speaker Nancy Pelosi and was scheduled to meet with Republican Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, but the meeting was cancelled after Mr. McConnell was called to the White House to be briefed on rising tensions with Iran. He later talked to the Kentucky Senator on the phone. During the NAFTA renegotiations in 2017, Mr. Trudeau met with Mr. McConnell and then-Republican House Speaker Paul Ryan.

Following the removal of tariffs, Ms. Freeland took to Twitter to note Mr. Grassley’s contribution in advocating for the removal of tariffs. In April, Mr. Grassley wrote an op-ed arguing that Mr. Trump had to end the tariffs or else the USMCA could not pass through Congress, which has the authority over implementing trade deals.

Mr. Robertson said a “signal change” was made by Mr. MacNaughton with increased Congressional outreach, where prior the majority of meetings Canadian cabinet members took in Washington would be with their administration counterparts.

“That is how the game is played in the United States and that gives us an advantage because we understand the system now,” he said, adding that he thinks it will continue after Mr. MacNaughton leaves.

Diamond Isinger, a former staffer in the PMO’s Canada-U.S. war room, said Mr. MacNaughton made it a priority to understand Americans.

“Ambassador MacNaughton really made it a priority to understand U.S. influencers, to try to identify who the best interlocutors or relationship holders in Canada would be for those individuals and make sure they were hearing Canadian messages,” she said, adding he had an “in-depth” understanding of Congress and the U.S. government, as well as the Canadian government, helping him to sync U.S. and Canadian priorities.

“MacNaughton spent a lot of time with a lot of members of Congress, with a lot of Senators,” Ms. Isinger said. He would meet personally with members of Congress, as well as set up meetings with between them and cabinet ministers.

Eric Miller, current president of the Rideau Potomac Strategy Group and a former senior policy adviser at the Canadian Embassy in Washington, D.C., said before Mr. MacNaughton assumed his post, Congressional outreach would be performed by embassy staff and not the ambassador.

“It wasn’t just the guy responsible for Congressional relations going to see [Congressional] staff, you had MacNaughton building really close relationships with U.S. lawmakers and leadership in both Houses,” Mr. Miller said, who also sits on the international trade deputy minister’s advisory council.

Along with Mr. MacNaughton, the embassy still has a group of staffers working on Congressional outreach. As of early this year, The Hill Times understands that there were nine staffers in that group, which has grown over time as the government has recognized the importance of Congress. They track Congressional priorities and understand the dynamics of the current U.S. political climate. They also give strategic advice on how Canada can best deliver its message to members of Congress.

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau met with U.S. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi on Capitol Hill in June. Photograph courtesy of Facebook

Within government, credit for the outreach strategy is up for debate. One government official told The Hill Times in April that it was a “whole of government approach” that stretched from the PMO to Global Affairs to the embassy, which had “new significance” after the creation of the PMO’s Canada-U.S. war room in early 2017. The official said Global Affairs played a leading role in it “to some extent.”

But Mr. Miller said he thinks Congressional outreach is a part of Mr. MacNaughton’s legacy in D.C., though he said more impactful than that was the role Mr. MacNaughton played maintaining Canada’s relationship with its southern neighbour at a time of “incredible uncertainty.”

During the renegotiations, talks had broken down and personal attacks were lobbed by the White House at Mr. Trudeau.

Following a testy G7 summit in Charlevoix, Que., in 2018, Mr. Trump, angered by statements Mr. Trudeau made at his concluding press conference—saying Canadians will not be “pushed around” and that U.S. tariffs on steel and aluminum were “kind of insulting”—called Mr. Trudeau “meek and mild” and “very dishonest and weak.” Trump’s economic adviser, Larry Kudlow, said Mr. Trudeau “betrayed” Mr. Trump and “should have known better,” and his trade adviser Peter Navarro took to U.S. cable news to say there was a “special place in hell for any foreign leader that engages in bad-faith diplomacy with Donald J. Trump and then tries to stab him in the back on the way out of the door.”

Along with USMCA negotiator Steve Verheul, Mr. MacNaughton is credited with being the most important figure in the successful renegotiation of NAFTA, according to another government official, operating behind the scenes instead of in public for all to see, and helping reduce heightened emotions.

In short order, he was able to understand the dynamic of the Trump White House and who held influence, the official remarked.

MacNaughton and Craft had ‘very positive’ relationship

Mr. Miller called the relationship between Mr. MacNaughton and now-former U.S. ambassador to Canada Kelly Craft “very positive,” which is “absolutely essential” to have between the two countries’ ambassadors.

The way in which Ms. Craft’s connections were leveraged will be the legacy of the MacNaughton-Craft partnership, said Sarah Goldfeder in an email, a principal at Earnscliffe Strategy Group and a former special assistant to two U.S. ambassador to Canada.

In a statement Aug. 9, Ms. Craft said Mr. McNaughton is “an admirable counterpart, a fierce negotiator, and above all, a cherished friend.”

Ms. Craft has been confirmed by the Senate to become the new U.S. ambassador to the United Nations.

Mr. Miller suggested that relationship was most important when dealing with Mr. McConnell, as Ms. Craft’s husband, coal baron Joe Craft, is a top donor to the Senator. Both Ms. Craft and Mr. McConnell are Kentucky natives.

“[Ms. Craft] no doubt reassured [Mr. McConnell] that MacNaughton was a straight shooter and some one you could work with,” Mr. Miller said, “who fought for the interests of his country, but ultimately was pragmatic and could make a deal.”

Mr. Robertson said he couldn’t think of another recent U.S. ambassador with such connections in both the administration and Congress.

“[Craft] played in a different league,” he said, taking issue with those who criticized her attendance record in Ottawa.

“What you want in an American ambassador is somebody to pick up the call and get through to the White House,” Mr. Robertson said. “Given the relationship we are in, it’s much more important that we have a [U.S.] ambassador [in Ottawa] that can get through to the key players and have their confidence.”