There are two versions of this story, the boring one and the juicy one. The boring one, from the White House: Canada’s leadership freaked out when rumors began swirling last month that Trump was going to withdraw from NAFTA to mark the end of his first hundred days in office. They dialed up Jared Kushner in a panic asking for clarity and Kushner told them that Trump and Justin Trudeau should probably speak directly about it. When, asked the Canadians? I’ll let you know, Kushner replied. Later that day, when Trump had a free moment, Kushner called the Canadians back to say that the president was available. So Trudeau called Trump. Result: NAFTA saved!
The juicy version is the Canadian version. Kushner came begging!
White House staff called the Prime Minister’s Office last month to urge Justin Trudeau to persuade President Donald Trump not to tear up the North American Free Trade Agreement, according to multiple Canadian government sources.
The unconventional diplomatic manoeuvre — approaching the head of a foreign government to influence your own boss — proved decisive, as Trump thereafter abandoned his threat to pull out of NAFTA unilaterally, citing the arguments made by Trudeau and Mexican President Enrique Pena Nieto as pivotal…
“You never know how much of it is theatre, but it didn’t feel that way,” said one senior Canadian diplomatic source, who spoke on condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to speak publicly about the matter. “Maybe they’re just learning how to be a government. At least they were open to the conversation, and that stopped them doing something rash and destructive.”
That report doesn’t name Kushner as the American who called but a different Canadian news story does. Each country’s version of events is self-serving, of course. In the American telling, it’s the Canadians who panic and initiate contact with the White House to head off disaster. In the Canadian telling, it’s the “globalist” Kushner, desperate to thwart Steve Bannon and his nationalist ally Peter Navarro before they convince Trump to pull the plug on NAFTA, who initiates contact with Trudeau’s office to beg him to reach out. That isn’t as damning as H.R. McMaster allegedly phoning South Korea to tell them that having them pay for THAAD isn’t official U.S. policy, no matter what Trump himself might think, but lobbying foreigners to lobby your boss is still dicey. Until now, top White House aides have sought to undermine each other only with strategic leaks to the media. If Trudeau’s allies are telling the truth, Kushner’s dragging in foreign diplomats to try to head Bannon and his allies off at the pass.
Lesson: Bannon should have had Marine Le Pen call Trump to urge him to tear up the agreement!
There’s a third possibility, though. What if Kushner and Bannon and Trump were playing a not-so-elaborate game of “good cop, bad cop”? Maybe Trump decided to throw his nationalist fans a bone as his hundredth day in office approached by making some loud noises about tearing up NAFTA. He quickly realized that was a bad idea when Sonny Perdue and Wilbur Ross showed him an electoral map and pointed out all the red areas that would be hit hard economically if NAFTA evaporated. Still, he didn’t want to back down unilaterally; the smart face-saving move would be to have the Canadians and Mexicans phone him and beg him not to leave the relationship. So Jared Kushner got on the phone with Ottawa and told Trudeau’s people, e.g., “He’s crazy! He might do it! You need to talk him off the ledge!” Whereupon Trudeau rolled his eyes and made the call to Trump that let him save face. Kushner didn’t undermine Trump in this telling, he was merely the “good cop” in a bit of scripted drama — for a very specific audience:
”A negotiating ploy,” said Gary Hufbauer of the Peterson Institute in Washington. ”True to Trump’s style.”
One Mexican official said an American colleague even admitted as much.
Foreign minister Luis Videgaray told media that an American colleague told him who the intended target was — the U.S. Congress. Congress has been dragging its heels in starting the NAFTA negotiation process and, according to the Mexican minister, some described the sudden activity as a pressure-tactic intended to light a fire under Capitol Hill.
It was a phony “crisis” designed to light a fire under Congress’s asses, essentially the “madman theory” of foreign policy aimed at the, er, U.S. legislature. Exit question: Which version is correct?