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Trump’s feud with Justin Trudeau looks like a stunt

President Trump withdrew from the G-7 statement June 9, blaming Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau. Here’s how the two have interacted in the past. (Video: Victoria Walker/The Washington Post)

President Trump’s rationale for lashing out at Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau does not add up.

Calling Trudeau “dishonest” and “weak,” Trump cited two reasons to withdraw the United States from a joint statement on “free, fair, and mutually beneficial trade,” which had been drafted at a summit of the Group of Seven industrialized nations over the weekend. In a tweet, Trump pointed to “Justin’s false statements at his news conference” and “the fact that Canada is charging massive Tariffs.”

Canadian tariffs were in place long before the summit and did not prevent Trump from initially endorsing the G-7 statement on trade. It makes little sense that these preexisting charges on U.S. exports would contribute to the president's sudden reversal.

What was new was Trudeau’s news conference Saturday, where he said that Canadians “will not be pushed around” and added that the Trump administration’s national security justification for imposing tariffs on steel and aluminum imported from Canada is “kind of insulting.”

Such statements are not objectively true or false, but they appear to be what triggered Trump’s outburst. CNN’s Jake Tapper on Sunday asked Larry Kudlow, the president’s chief economic adviser, “What did [Trudeau] say that was so offensive?”

“Well,” Kudlow explained, “he holds a press conference, and he said the U.S. is insulting. He said that Canada has to stand up for itself. ... I mean, he really kind of stabbed us in the back.”

White House trade adviser Peter Navarro similarly — and even more colorfully — told Fox News Channel that “there's a special place in hell for any foreign leader that engages in bad-faith diplomacy with President Donald J. Trump and then tries to stab him in the back on the way out the door. And that’s what bad-faith Justin Trudeau did with that stunt press conference. That’s what weak, dishonest Justin Trudeau did. And that comes right from Air Force One.”

The accusation of backstabbing does not comport with Trudeau’s overall message, which was mild and echoed some of his previous statements. Seemingly confused by Trump’s fury, Trudeau’s office said in a statement that “the prime minister said nothing he hasn’t said before — both in public and in private conversations with the president.”

It appears as though Trump is the one performing a stunt, raging at Trudeau in theatrical fashion without a clear reason to be so worked up. In fact, Kudlow suggested in his appearance on CNN that Trump’s anger at Trudeau is an act for an audience of one: North Korean leader Kim Jong Un.

“POTUS is not going to let a Canadian prime minister push him around,” Kudlow said. “He is not going to permit any show of weakness on the trip to negotiate with North Korea, nor should he.”

Kudlow’s remark set up this telling exchange:

TAPPER: So, this was about North Korea?
KUDLOW: Of course it was, in large part, absolutely.
TAPPER: So, because Trudeau said that as Trump was going to Singapore ...
KUDLOW: Well, you know, one thing leads to another, Jake.
TAPPER: Oh, I see. Okay.
KUDLOW: They are all related. We had done our work in — in Quebec, north of Quebec. We did our work. We worked with the Western alliance, pleased to do so. We get on the plane, and then this guy, Trudeau, starts blasting us.
TAPPER: So what is key here?
KUDLOW: Kim must not see American weakness.

It seems the true explanation for Trump’s rhetorical attack on Trudeau is not Canadian tariffs or the content of the prime minister’s news conference. Those appear to be mere excuses to strike an aggressive posture before meeting with Kim.