Presidents have come to learn that there is a great demand for their candid thoughts — their real feelings about topics that, in public, they address only with cliches and the same old rhetoric. Over the years, for instance, White House press mavens have organized off-the-record chats between presidents and journalists, academics, policy experts, etc. Though participants are bound by the ground rules not to publish the president’s thoughts, they can whisper clues about the goings-on to journalists who weren’t in attendance. Peter Baker of the New York Times is an expert at this craft.
Now Daniel Dale, Washington correspondent for the Toronto Star, is getting in on the fun. The headline of his piece is “Bombshell leak to Toronto Star upends NAFTA talks: In secret ‘so insulting’ remarks, Trump says he isn’t compromising at all with Canada.” The powerful gist of the story is that Trump isn’t giving any ground in ongoing trade talks with Canada. However, he can’t come out and say as much because, according to Dale’s reporting, “it’s going to be so insulting they’re not going to be able to make a deal.”
Now, Trump made those comments, and others, under an off-the-record agreement with Bloomberg. There were plenty of other highlights from Trump’s candor, via Dale and the Toronto Star:
“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.
More good secret stuff: “Again off the record, they came knocking on our doors last night. ‘Let’s make a deal. Please,’” Trump said to the Bloomberg reporters.
Contacted by the Erik Wemple Blog, Dale declined to comment on the story and his sourcing beyond what’s in his piece. Accordingly, there’s a great deal of wondering on social media:
White House deputy press secretary Lindsay Walters sent this statement to the Erik Wemple Blog: “The Canadian and American negotiators continue to work on reaching a win-win deal that benefits both countries.” Those words came in response to a question as to whether the Toronto Star’s reporting was fair. As Dale noted in his piece, “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.” Bloomberg hasn’t published the Dale quotes. It did, however, publish this exchange:
BLOOMBERG: Could you tell us if tomorrow comes and goes, what happens to Canada? What will happen if Canada has…
TRUMP: I think Canada’s going to make a deal at some point. It may be by Friday, or it may be within a period of time. But ultimately they have no choice.
The implications of Trump’s off-the-record comments? Big. Canadian officials, reports Dale, found them reflective of their negotiations and brought up the matter at a Friday meeting with their U.S. counterparts.
Government officials, nonprofit officials, industry officials — they all commonly insist on going off the record from time to time. Thing is, off-the-record remarks are commonly bland, boring and pointless — so much so that the Erik Wemple Blog, and surely many other journalists, ask their interlocutors: Why on earth is this off the record?
Trump is a different creature. He says dumb things on the record; he says dumb things off the record.
As a coda, the story looks at first blush like bad news for the White House. Why anger the Canadians after all? On the other hand, applying reason and logic to the actions of the White House is folly. It’s possible that someone, perhaps even Trump himself, was out to burnish the president’s self-styled image as a kick-butt negotiator — and these comments were just the trick.
Whatever the case, Trump’s tweet on Friday afternoon on this turn of events leaves open any explanation you may choose: