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A trip to Washington D.C. to cover our prime minister meeting with the leader of the free world really puts some perspective on Canada’s importance in the grand scheme.
On Wednesday evening, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau left Ottawa on his third visit to the White House since Donald J. Trump was elected president – for the PM it was a crucial visit ahead of the next election and a tightly-managed affair.
After touching down at Andrews Airforce Base in Maryland, Trudeau was greeted by dignitaries, including Canadian Ambassador to the United States, David MacNaughton and U.S. Ambassador to Canada, Kelly Craft.
The greeting was originally closed to media, but Craft’s grandchildren in Toronto Raptors’ garb and stood at the end of the red carpet meant a change of plans and reporters were invited to document the greeting.
After embracing Craft, Trudeau made a beeline to these American Raptors fans huddled with the U.S. ambassador’s husband Joe Craft.
While most of their brief conversation was out of earshot one charming moment was audible. “You guys are Raptors fans?” asked Trudeau. “He is,” said the girl at the centre of the photo below, using her thumb to point at the boy.
And so a routine and low-key welcome for Trudeau turned into a ‘We the North’ diplomatic portrait – marked departure from the PM’s penchant for selfies. By all accounts, the trip was off to a gaffe-free, feel good start.
From there, Trudeau and his entourage were whisked off to the Canadian Embassy for a closed party with other dignitaries and D.C. politicos while media were shuttled to a hotel.
There was a lot riding on this trip for Trudeau and his Ministers of Finance, Defence and Foreign Affairs who would attend a ‘working lunch’ with Trump and his respective cabinet the following day. Ostensibly, the PM and his top cabinet members were in Washington D.C. to bolster ratification of the new NAFTA trade deal, or United States-Mexico-Canada Agreement (USMCA) and to ask for Trump’s assistance in resolving Canada’s diplomatic crisis with China.
All of this would occur with an election looming for Trudeau, a referendum on his first term as Canadian Prime Minister.
For Trump, Trudeau could offer a goodwill mission to U.S. Congress, where Democratic House Speaker Nancy Pelosi – fierce opponent of Trump who holds ratification cards on USMCA – would later exchange wine for chocolates with Trudeau to settle an NBA championship wager. That meeting would be restricted to a photo-op with ‘press pool’ recap by one reporter, who basically described the event in eight or nine lines of uninspiring copy.
“Pelosi and the prime minister project a genuine warmth,” writes the pool reporter. “(She) wore a yellow dress yellow shoes and yellow necklace.”
But all of this heady meeting-and-greeting, peppered with fashion recall would be for tomorrow. So after filing a story on the PM’s arrival, the capital of the most powerful nation on Earth demanded some exploration, however brief on a junket that would last little more than 24-hours.
The grandeur of Washington D.C. and the gravitas it places on its own storied history can not be overstated. The government precinct is anchored by five points on a cross with George Washington’s obelisk situated at its centre point.
At the cross’s East flank is the U.S. Capitol and four kilometres due West stands the Lincoln Monument. On the North end of the crossbar is home of the sitting president at 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue; two kilometres South is the Jefferson Monument.
The entire city is built to remind those who govern her in the here and now, of the blood and treasure paid by forebears in the pursuit of creating what remains a beacon of freedom for the world. Even in its late-18th century infancy, a fledgling United States of America already carried scars endured through two global conflicts and a revolution.
A third transcontinental war (1812-1815) would follow Jefferson’s Declaration of Independence and the impressive Lincoln monument reminds visitors of a fourth titanic conflict – the Civil War – that brought the most grotesque period of U.S. history, written in the slave trade, to a bloody conclusion.
The manner in which Trump’s election victory and his first term as the 45th President of the United States is portrayed by political opponents and a large swath of mainstream media, has created this new mirage of American grotesqueness.
Full disclosure: this reporter detests the current narrative and would venture to flip the viewpoint upside down for argument’s sake. Trump may be flawed, even more so than many of his predecessors. But like them, he is an exceptional 21st-century product of what Alexis de Tocqueville describes in his 1835 study of this new republic, Democracy In America. How exceptionally good, or bad remains a matter of perspective.
For better or worse, through the Great Wars, a Great Depression between, the Cold War, Korea, Vietnam, Iraq 1 and 2, the Afghanistan quagmire and ISIS, 24-hour news and instant communications, America got the election it ultimately deserved in 2016.
In a political showdown American historians will write about for the ages, Trump prevailed; first in Republican primaries then against Democrat and POTUS heir-apparent Hillary Clinton. Trump did this under the same Electoral College conditions that placed Democrat and Republican contemporaries into the same Oval Office.
When Trump’s detractors note that Clinton won the popular vote and blame the Electoral College or Russia, it eerily evokes de Tocqueville’s worry that America’s rugged individualism could one day backfire if its citizens were assimilated in an ever-shrinking marketplace of ideas, thus risking a ‘tyranny of the majority’.
In any event, the campaign of celebrity candidates and, well celebrities, amped up by social media, dirt digging and Wikileaks, provided enough scandal for Trump and Clinton; forget about ‘Russian influence’ and ‘collusion’ for which either camp could be accused in any final analysis.
On Thursday, June 20, 2019, what anybody in Canada or its government think of the billionaire real estate mogul who clobbered two political dynasties by taking up POTUS as a retirement hobby, was meaningless.
When Trudeau’s black SUV pulled up at the West Wing’s main entrance around noon last Thursday, the game of realpolitik was on and America’s best friend was calling for a favour.
At the Oval Office photo op, Trump opened up the floor for questions and things took off: first stop, POTUS bragged about near-record S&P market showings, then waxed about ‘$1.5-billion’ savings on Air Force One rebuild (foreground model) as well as honouring indy and stockcar champion Roger Penske.
The Oval Office is smaller than it looks in the news and popular film and television. Combined with the urgency over herding dozens of reporters and TV crews inside and out offered little chance to scan the room in such a tight space.
Only after viewing a video of the Q&A did this reporter notice Press Secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders’ presence and upon closer scrutiny of photographs published here, that Secretary of State Mike Pompeo was in the room as well.
Two Canadians detained by China also featured in the Oval Office meeting. Huawei executive Meng Wanzhou is currently under house arrest in Vancouver, and faces extradition to the U.S. for her role in violating sanctions levelled against Iran.
In apparent retaliation, Michael Kovrig and Michael Spavor were arrested by China at the end of last year have since been accused of espionage. “I would (speak to the Chinese), at Justin’s request. I would absolutely,” said Trump.
Ratification of the new free trade deal was also discussed. Trump recently lifted tariffs on Canadian steel and aluminum after Canada promised to clamp down on dumped Asian steel being transhipped into the United States. “There won’t be, hopefully, transshipping. If there’s transhipping I’ll call Justin and he’ll take care of it.” When Trump looked to Trudeau on this point, the PM said, “We’ll be fine.”
Iran also dominated Trump’s 12-minute media engagement. But there were lighter moments too after Trump said he would shortly announce giving Penske the Medal of Freedom, the country’s highest honour. “Well, I guess I already announced it,” he quipped, eliciting laughter.
Asked repeatedly if he would take military action against Iran for the recent downing of a U.S. drone, Trump replied: “You’ll find out,” also repeatedly.
In television and Youtube snippets, these encounters often come across as chaotic events. Quite the contrary from this reporter’s vantage. The 73-year-old Trump, who celebrated his latest birthday six days previous, controlled, even dominated the room.
Trump took the questions he wanted, when he wanted them and delivered precise telegraphed messages – ‘Iran was lucky nobody was in the drone,’ for example – which caused mirth among some reporters but should be crystal clear for the Ayatollah or his minions tuning in.
A day after the Trudeau-Trump gathering on June 21st – solstice coincidentally – it was learned that POTUS revoked authorization for a retaliatory strike against the Iran at the last minute because it was ‘disproportionate’.
The Pentagon estimated 150 people would have died in the attack.