WASHINGTON—High-stakes trade negotiations between Canada and the U.S. were dramatically upended on Friday morning by inflammatory secret remarks from President Donald Trump, after the remarks were obtained by the Toronto Star.
In remarks Trump wanted to be “off the record,” Trump told Bloomberg News reporters on Thursday, according to a source, that he is not making any compromises at all in the talks with Canada — but that he cannot say this publicly because “it’s going to be so insulting they’re not going to be able to make a deal.”
“Here’s the problem. If I say no — the answer’s no. If I say no, then you’re going to put that, and it’s going to be so insulting they’re not going to be able to make a deal … I can’t kill these people,” he said of the Canadian government.
In another remark he did not want published, Trump said, according to the source, that the possible deal with Canada would be “totally on our terms.” He suggested he was scaring the Canadians into submission by repeatedly threatening to impose tariffs.
“Off the record, Canada’s working their ass off. And every time we have a problem with a point, I just put up a picture of a Chevrolet Impala,” Trump said, according to the source. The Impala is produced at the General Motors plant in Oshawa, Ontario.
Trump made the remarks in an Oval Office interview with Bloomberg. He deemed them off the record, and Bloomberg accepted his request not to reveal them.
But the Star is not bound by any promises Bloomberg made to Trump. And the remarks immediately became a factor in the negotiations: Trudeau’s officials, who saw them as evidence for their previous suspicions that Trump’s team had not been bargaining in good faith, raised them at the beginning of a meeting with their U.S. counterparts on Friday morning, a U.S. source confirmed.
The Star was not able to independently confirm the remarks with 100 per cent certainty, but the Canadian government is confident they are accurate.
Bloomberg editor-in-chief John Micklethwait, who was one of the journalists in the room, did not dispute their authenticity. Nor did the White House.
“If this was said, it was said in an off the record capacity. I understand you guys have obtained it; I’m not sure where you’ve obtained it from,” said White House deputy press secretary Lindsay Walters.
Walters later provided a more formal comment to the Star and U.S. outlets.
“The Canadian and American negotiators continue to work on reaching a win-win deal that benefits both countries,” she said.
The unusual series of events began on Friday morning, when the Star asked Trudeau’s team, which was heading into a critical top-level 9 a.m. meeting with Trump’s team, for comment on the remarks.
Trudeau’s team believed the remarks to be accurate, and it saw them as confirmation of its suspicions that Trump’s team has not been truly planning to compromise. Earlier on Friday morning, before becoming aware of the remarks, a Canadian official told the Star the U.S. side was not offering “any movement” on the issues most important to Canada.
So at the outset of the Friday meeting — which was expected to involve Foreign Affairs Minister Chrystia Freeland and senior Trudeau adviser Gerald Butts among others on the Canadian side and U.S. Trade Representative Robert Lighthizer and senior Trump aide Jared Kushner among others on the U.S. side — Trudeau’s officials unveiled the quotes to their U.S. counterparts.
The Canadian government declined to comment on what transpired in the meeting. The two countries plan to meet at some point later in the day.
“We’re looking for a good deal, not just any deal. And we will only agree to a deal that is a good deal for Canada. We’re not there yet,” Freeland said.
Trudeau, who happened to be in Oshawa as the drama unfolded, said: “We will only sign a deal if it is a good deal for Canada.”
“Again, no deal is better than a bad deal for Canada and for Canadians, and that’s exactly what we are remaining firm on. However, we know that it is possible to get a deal that works in everyone’s interests,” he said.
“Over the past year and a half, there’s a lot of things that have been said from time to time. I think people have noticed that our government’s approach is always to stay constructive, positive, to engage on the substance of issues, and to demonstrate that we understand that the path forward is one of making sure that there’s a win-win-win on all sides.
On the record, Trump told Bloomberg that a deal was “close,” that it could happen by Friday but might take longer, and that Canada ultimately has “no choice” but to make a deal. Bloomberg quoted these remarks.
But then he said, “Off the record: totally on our terms. Totally.”
“Again off the record, they came knocking on our doors last night. ‘Let’s make a deal. Please,’” he said.
Bloomberg’s Micklethwait declined to comment.
“‘Off the record’ means ‘off the record’ — and we should respect that,” Micklethwait said in an email.
Trump’s remarks came at a particularly delicate time in the negotiations. Negotiators have been trying for three days to meet a Trump-imposed Friday deadline for making a deal.
The deadline is not firm. Even if the U.S. formally notifies Congress on Friday that it has made a preliminary deal with Mexico alone, as Trump officials have threatened to do, Canada can almost certainly be added to the arrangement at any time in the next month.
Trump, of course, is known for both dishonesty and for bragging about his own greatness, and he regularly makes dubious claims about how he is supposedly dominating the begging people on the other side of the bargaining table from him. When he claimed to have made no compromises, it is distinctly possible he was making a false claim to impress the Bloomberg journalists.
Regardless of their truthfulness, the president’s comments are significant for more than one reason.
As Trump said, his claim that he has not compromised at all could make it harder for Trudeau to sell the deal to Canadians as a win for both countries. But the disclosure of the claim could also make it harder for Trump to convince Americans that Canada is at fault for any impasse.
It is noteworthy that Trump, who has claimed to be indifferent about whether Canada signs a deal, is interested enough in securing Canada’s participation that he went off the record to avoid an optics problem for Trudeau.
And the comments are a rare example of Trump self-censoring his public remarks out of concern for diplomatic sensitivities. The president is proud of his fondness for insults — Trudeau has been one of his favourite recent foreign targets — and of his disregard for conventions of politeness.
The public will not know precisely what concessions were made by each side until experts are able to read a text of the deal. Any agreement would cover hundreds of products and numerous complicated subject areas.
Trump’s team, meanwhile, publicly blamed Canada for the deadlock on Friday morning.
“There have been no concessions by Canada on agriculture,” a spokesperson for the Lighthizer told the Washington Post.
There is a precedent for Trump’s off the record remarks to one media outlet being revealed to another. In 2017, after the Wall Street Journal declined to release a full transcript of its own interview with Trump, Politico published the full text.