OTTAWA — The Canadian government and political leaders attempted to play it cool Thursday after President Trump boasted to supporters at a private dinner that he fabricated information about Canada’s purported trade surplus with the United States in private discussions with Prime Minister Justin Trudeau.
While there was a collective eye roll from the Canadian media and commentators on social media, government spokesmen simply repeated U.S. government statistics that the United States has a trade surplus with its neighbor to the north.
Trump told a fundraising dinner Wednesday that when he met Trudeau, he “had no idea” what the U.S. trade balance was with Canada but nevertheless insisted that the United States ran a deficit with the country. The president’s comments came just a week after he announced steep tariffs on aluminum and steel imports. Canada is temporarily exempt from the levies while the North American Free Trade Agreement, or NAFTA, is renegotiated.
“Canada and the United States have a balanced and mutually beneficial trading relationship,” said Adam Austen, a spokesman for Canadian Foreign Minister Chrystia Freeland. “The Office of the United States Trade Representative confirms that the U.S. goods and services trade surplus with Canada was $12.5 billion in 2016.”
The Canadian ambassador to Washington, David MacNaughton, tweeted a similar message, adding that the U.S. trade surplus was $12.5 billion “including energy and lumber,” to counter Trump’s insistence that the surplus turned to a deficit if energy and “timber” were included. The United States runs a trade surplus with Canada in services.
Marc Garneau, Canada’s transport minister and chairman of a cabinet committee on Canada-U.S. relations, told reporters that the two countries do more than $2 billion a day in mutual trade and that “overall, annually, the United States has a small surplus with Canada.”
“So we can talk about balanced trade between the two countries, huge amounts of trade, and this is something we want to continue to improve as we negotiate the NAFTA agreement,” Garneau said. Trump has repeatedly called NAFTA a “disaster,” including at Wednesday’s dinner.
Bruce Heyman, U.S. ambassador to Canada under President Barack Obama, wasn’t as charitable.
The story was front-page news in Canada, but the coverage was far from hysterical. Canadians usually crave attention from south of the border but in recent weeks have been buffeted by Trump’s initial threat to hit Canadian steel and aluminum exports with tariffs. His rhetoric on NAFTA has also led many to wonder whether the U.S. president wants to renegotiate the trade pact or simply scrap it.
For some media organizations, it was clearly more of the same. After Trump repeated his claim that the United States has a trade deficit with Canada in a tweet Thursday morning, the National Observer, a Canadian news website, published the headline “Trump doubles down on lie he told Trudeau about trade deficit.”
Adding to the confusion about whether Canada is friend or foe, the Toronto Star reported that Larry Kudlow, Trump’s new top economic adviser, recently called Trudeau a “left-wing crazy guy” on CNBC before his appointment.
Yet Kudlow also praised Canada as “perhaps America’s greatest ally,” lashing out at the idea of imposing steel and aluminum tariffs on Canada and urging Trump not to dump NAFTA. On the trade balance, Kudlow also didn’t see eye to eye with Trump. “Net-net, we run a trade surplus with our great pals up north in Canada,” Kudlow said last month.
As for Trudeau, he left Thursday with his family for a break in Florida. But he seems to have figured out a way of dealing with Trump. In an interview this week with CNN’s Anderson Cooper, the prime minister was asked whether flattery works in dealing with the president.
“I’ve certainly made a point of not disrespecting him or being insulting, but at the same time, I’ve demonstrated that I’m willing to stand up for Canadian workers every step of the way,” he said, “and ultimately he respects that.”
Correction: An earlier version of this story incorrectly stated that the United States has a goods trade surplus with Canada. The United States has a surplus in total trade with Canada but a deficit in goods trade with Canada.