There are probably a dozen places Justin Trudeau would rather be than in Washington today for his first meeting with President Donald Trump – mercurial, unpredictable, egotistical, short-tempered and at times downright nasty, even to his nation’s close friends.
No amount of official briefing or gratuitous advice from editorial boards and columnists can adequately prepare the prime minister for the encounter. Like anxious parents prepping their five-year-old for his first day at school, these savants have filled Trudeau’s head with lists of things to do and don’t do.
Be friendly, but don’t smile too much, lest it be taken as weakness or sycophancy. Don’t comment on Trump’s appearance, especially not the colour of his hair or the length of his tie. Don’t mention your “bromance” with Barack Obama, whoever he was. Don’t utter the word “liberal,” unless you can do it with a sneer. Don’t let on that Saturday Night Live comes into Canada or that you have ever heard of Melissa McCarthy.
Do assure him you and your family would never dream of shopping at Nordstrom, Sears, Kmart or any other retailer that may have, or might in the future, drop his daughter’s lines of clothing and shoes.
By all means, do remind him that Canada remains the closest friend, staunchest ally and largest market for American goods. But don’t mention the world’s longest undefended border, lest he realize there is no wall, yet.
Do thank him, if you wish, for giving TransCanada’s Keystone XL pipeline the green light, but don’t raise his subsequent edict that all the steel be made in the United States. You can leave that issue to the World Trade Organization.
By all means, don’t ask him to explain the difference between an alternative fact and a lie. And don’t ask about suggestions that Sarah Palin could become his ambassador to Canada, lest he think it a brilliant idea and do it on the spot.
In normal times, first meetings between presidents and prime ministers follow a pattern. After posing for the cameras, they sit down to get acquainted and to make a tour d’horizon, a once-over-lightly of world issues during which each leader identifies his nation’s priorities. Turning to bilateral matters, they will identity areas of shared purpose as well as those issues that will require negotiation to work out differences between them.
When they are done, the leaders would hold a joint press conference, say nice things about each other, mention issues marked for further discussion, and promise to meet again soon.
That’s in normal times. These being abnormal times, all bets are off. Trump prides himself on being unpredictable (just ask the prime minister of Australia). As a negotiating tactic, he likes to keep others off balance. He seems to thrive on chaos. He can be influenced by the last person he met, or tweeted, or saw on talk-TV.
He is ill-informed and impulsive, reversing positions without warning – last week’s about-face on the “one-China” policy being just one example.
Trump’s Washington could be a dangerous mine field for Trudeau. He has sent his sweepers ahead. In the past week alone, Foreign Affairs Minister Chrystia Freeland, Defence Minister Harjit Sajjan and Finance Minister Bill Morneau were all in Washington, consulting with their opposite numbers in the Trump administration, meeting congressional leaders, and trying to get a read on what the president really wants and how his “America First” policy will affect Canada and Canadian interests.
With a normal president and a coterie of normal advisers – and taking account of events since the inauguration -- it would be reasonable to predict that today’s meeting would be dominated by economic issues, including trade (NAFTA) and job creation, followed by immigration and border security.
But Donald Trump is not a normal president. And the alt-right’s Stephen Bannon is not a normal chief strategist, nor is Kellyanne Conway (of alternative facts fame) a normal counselor to the president.
Anything could happen, and probably will.