Members of the Trump administration would rant at their Canadian counterparts during the renegotiation of NAFTA about the frequency of leaks that appeared in the press.
The Americans insisted those trade talks be allowed to unfold discreetly at the negotiating table. They avoided news conferences, rarely spoke to reporters and let Donald Trump’s occasional ill-tempered tweets speak for the U.S.
A new memoir lays out the U.S. perspective on those closed-door talks.
The book by presidential son-in-law and senior-staffer Jared Kushner earned the literary equivalent of a ritualized execution in a vividly unflattering New York Times book review that mocked its wooden writing and wilful blindness to the seedier aspects of the Trump legacy.
The book does fill in some gaps on a significant historical event for Canada: it describes the false-starts in the trade talks; frustrations with the Canadians; and how the deal wound up with two tongue-twisting acronyms for a name.
Breaking History, Kushner’s book, describes a method to Trump’s madness, crediting the president’s sporadic threats to cancel NAFTA with creating valuable pressure on Canada and Mexico.
It also acknowledges the madness in the method.
An angry tweet from Trump stalled talks before they even began. In early 2017, the North American countries planned an amicable announcement of new trade negotiations at a three-country event at the White House.
When Kushner called Prime Minister Justin Trudeau’s chief of staff to confirm plans, Katie Telford asked whether it was still on: “Didn’t you see his tweets this morning?”
In fact, Kushner had not seen his father-in-law’s public threat to cancel meetings with the Mexican leader unless Mexico paid for a new border wall; the meeting was cancelled.
Later in the day he said Trump realized that might have been a mistake and half-jokingly told Kushner: “I can’t make this too easy for you.”
The tweets, then the drama
Months later, there was another bumpy launch. Trump asked staff to draw up documents to terminate the original NAFTA.
Trump was actually undecided about whether to go through with it when someone — Kushner suspects it was White House trade skeptic Peter Navarro — leaked the news to the Politico website, hoping to pressure the president to do it.
Aspects of what happened next are already public knowledge: Trudeau and his Mexican counterpart Enrique Peña Nieto called Trump, pleading with him not to, warning it would cause chaos, and after a frantic few hours everyone agreed to launch renegotiation talks.
What’s less well-known is that Trump engineered those calls, according to the book.
What had happened was the pro-trade Agriculture Secretary Sonny Perdue had already persuaded Trump not to cancel NAFTA; he showed Trump a large map and explained it would crush farmers in the rural areas that support him.
Trump needed a face-saving way to back down from his threat.
The solution? Get those foreign leaders on the phone to plead with him; Kushner called Telford and a Mexican colleague and said their bosses should urgently phone Trump.
“Sensing that Trump was looking for a solution, I [said]: ‘What if I get President Peña Nieto and Prime Minister Trudeau to call right now and ask you not to cancel NAFTA, and then you can put out a statement that says you will give them time to negotiate,'” Kushner wrote.
“The immediate crisis abated.”
That was in April 2017. Formal talks began later that summer. After months of negotiations, the Americans grew increasingly annoyed at Canada ‘s alleged unwillingess to budge on key issues.
Kushner said he enlisted billionaire businessman Steve Schwarzman to call Trudeau and tell him the Canadians were taking a serious risk: “They are playing chicken with the wrong guy,” he said he told Schwarzman.
He said the businessman called him back a few hours later: “Trudeau, he said, ‘Got the message loud and clear.'”
A Canadian team flew down to Washington and Telford says there were three impediments to a deal: U.S. steel tariffs on Canada, the need for a dispute mechanism, and dairy.
U.S. team erupts at Freeland
The book describes how U.S. officials grew annoyed in the final bargaining sessions with Canada’s lead politician in the talks, Chrystia Freeland.
It’s been reported that one American erupted up at Freeland for slow-walking during those sessions, losing his patience when she started discussing whaling rights for Inuit people.
The book places the U.S. narrative on the public record.
“An increasingly frustrating series of negotiations,” is how Kushner described it. He said Freeland would read notes scribbled in ink on her hand, then let her officials spar with U.S. trade chief Robert Lighthizer over the technical details.
“All the while [she was] refusing to commit to any substantive changes,” Kushner wrote.
“Following this theater, she would walk to the steps of the USTR [U.S. Trade Representative] building and hold an outdoor press conference, uttering platitudes like ‘I get paid in Canadian dollars, not U.S. dollars.'”
At this point the U.S. prepared for two outcomes: a Mexico-U.S. deal or a three-country one. Kushner says Peña Nieto also told Trudeau his representatives were moving too slowly and that Mexico would sign.
Then, on Sept. 26, Trump trashed Freeland at a press conference and threatened to punish Canadian autos with tariffs.
Kushner writes: “Less than an hour later, the Canadians gave us an offer in writing. After 16 months of stalling, they were finally ready to talk specifics.”
Yet when he showed the Canadian offer to Lighthizer, the U.S. trade chief said: “This is all rubbish! They don’t want to make a deal.” Kushner said he suggested calling Telford to explain why it was unworkable: “‘No,’ Lighthizer shot back.”
‘I want it to be called the USMCA’
After meetings the next morning, however, Kushner called Telford, and they settled some longstanding irritants. Trudeau’s chief of staff called back an hour later and said: “The prime minister is going to take the deal.”
With the deal done, Trump made one final request.
“I want it to be called the USMCA, like [the] U.S. Marine Corps.”
Freeland and the rest of the Canadian government have refused to use that name, continuing to call it, “the new NAFTA,” or by the acronym, CUSMA.
Kushner credits the president’s style for producing a better deal for the U.S.: the new agreement sets caps on low-wage auto production in Mexico; lets slightly more U.S. dairy into Canada; and forces once-a-decade reviews of the pact.
“Negotiating a trade deal is like a game of chicken, with real consequences. The other side has to believe you are going to jump off a cliff. We succeeded because Trump was absolutely prepared to terminate NAFTA — and Mexico and Canada knew it,” he writes. “His style made many people uncomfortable, including his allies in Congress, foreign leaders and his own advisers, but it led to unprecedented results.”
One Canadian official involved in the talks said Ottawa knew exactly what it was doing by stalling: Canada was aware the U.S. wanted a deal quickly, before late 2018.
Canadian official: We intentionally drained the clock
Trump’s team hoped to conclude talks while Republicans still controlled Congress before the 2018 midterms, and before a new Mexican president took office.
“The truth is we were draining the clock,” said one Canadian involved. “Trudeau never instructed us to make a final deal. He always said [get] the right deal or no deal.”
The Canadian government was more circumspect when asked for an on-the-record comment about Kushner’s book: in an emailed statement, a spokeswoman for Freeland said the Canadian team worked hard for a good deal and was vindicated by its firm approach.
The juicier parts of Kushner’s book include chronicles of rampant back-stabbing and turf wars in the Trump White House.
He writes that Bannon dishonestly brands himself as the keeper of the Trumpian ideological flame, and Kushner as a liberal interloper, when, in reality, Bannon joined the Trump team late in the 2016 campaign, long after his policies were set.
Sidestepping Jan. 6
The historic events of Jan. 6, 2021, barely merit a mention. Kushner says he was travelling back from the Middle East and didn’t realize until late in the day the seriousness of the storming of the Capitol.
The New York Times review assailed Kushner’s book as self-servingly selective, its prose soulless, sidestepping the key unflattering details of Trump’s political epitaph.
“Kushner almost entirely ignores the chaos, the alienation of allies, the breaking of laws and norms, the flirtations with dictators, the comprehensive loss of America’s moral leadership, and so on,” said the review.
“This book is like a tour of a once majestic 18th-century wooden house, now burned to its foundations, that focuses solely on, and rejoices in, what’s left amid the ashes: the two singed bathtubs, the gravel driveway and the mailbox. Kushner’s fealty to Trump remains absolute.”