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Why Trump is tweeting about lumber and dairy instead of tweaking NAFTA

Logs are unloaded at Murray Brothers Lumber Company woodlot in Madawaska, Ontario, on April 25, 2017.

Sean Kilpatrick/THE CANADIAN PRESS

The difference now is that Donald Trump is tweeting. Those softwood lumber tariffs would have been imposed under any president, and there'd be a dairy spat too. The unique feature now is that the U.S. President is targeting Canada by name.

For months, Canadian government officials and business leaders comforted themselves with the notion that, even though Mr. Trump was threatening to tear up the North American free-trade agreement and impose protectionist measures that could sideswipe Canada, he was targeting Mexico, or China. Not us.

Now this country has been Trump-trolled so many times in a week it's like being Rosie O'Donnell. Mexico, now we feel your pain, amigo.

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The President visited Wisconsin and claimed Canada was being unfair to U.S. dairy farmers, followed by vague complaints about Canadian practices in lumber, dairy, and energy. The U.S. announced a tariff on Canadian softwood lumber Monday, and on Tuesday Mr. Trump tweeted that Canada is making business difficult for U.S. dairy farmers: "We will not stand for this. Watch!"

This is not where Prime Minister Justin Trudeau wanted to be. His government tried to stickhandle Mr. Trump, to avoid confrontation, build a relationship, stress common ground – and stay out of his Twitter stream. Mr. Trudeau appeared to have succeeded when he visited the White House in February, and Mr. Trump said that for Canada, NAFTA only needed "tweaking."

If it was just Mr. Trump tweeting now, one might dismiss it as a midnight fancy, something that, who knows, he might forget next week.

But it's not. Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross echoed the statements. And on trade, Mr. Ross is the deeper version of Trump policy: the President fires blasts of 140 characters, and Mr. Ross expands it into paragraphs on TV. He issued a statement calling it a "bad week for U.S.-Canada trade relations."

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"This is not our idea of a properly functioning free-trade agreement," he said.

But the disputes, on lumber and dairy, would be there even if somebody else were President. And on substantive measures, the Trump Administration hasn't done anything Barack Obama or a hypothetical President Hillary Clinton wouldn't have done.

Wisconsin dairy farmers were squawking because they'd lost business: they had found a new way around some of Canada's protectionist rules and into the Canadian market, but the rules were recently changed to cut them off. Dairy farmers squawked, so U.S. politicians did, too. Enter Mr. Trump.

The softwood lumber tariffs imposed by the Trump administration are an almost automatic development. The last negotiated softwood deal ran out in 2015, then there was a one-year moratorium on new tariffs. When that was up, the U.S. moved ahead with tariffs requested by the U.S. lumber industry – as it invariably does when there's no deal in place. The U.S. has done that four times in 40 years, as Natural Resources Minister Jim Carr pointed out Tuesday.

So why is Mr. Trump tweeting rather than tweaking? Part of it is looking tough for the home audience. There's political mileage in it. Mr. Trump needs congressional backing for NAFTA negotiations, so it helps to rile up senators from states with lumber mills and dairy farms by tying those disputes to NAFTA talks.

But it looks like a negotiating tactic, too – trying to sow worry in Canadian ranks before the big talks. Mr. Ross has suggested so before, in his Senate confirmation hearings, when he said Mr. Trump's trade threats were "preconditioning" Canada and Mexico to make concessions.

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"There seems to be a lot of sabre-rattling," said Patrick Leblond, the Paul Tellier chair in business and public policy at the University of Ottawa. "That seems to be a strategy."

Mr. Leblond argues that the Trump administration's NAFTA signals so far – notably a letter to Congress outlining its negotiating goals – are so extensively protectionist that they'd be worse for Canada than no deal at all.

Canada would do better to hold firm, even stall talks, if Mr. Trump tries to push things that far, Mr. Leblond argues; it would be stuck with a bad deal for a long time. Mr. Trump would face pushback from U.S. business if he actually tried to abrogate NAFTA, Mr. Leblond argues. "Let's play poker," he said. Part of Mr. Trump's tweeting is to encourage Ottawa to get ready to fold.

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Video: Ottawa vows to ‘press’ U.S. to rescind softwood lumber tariffs (The Canadian Press)
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About the Author
Chief political writer

Campbell Clark has been a political writer in The Globe and Mail’s Ottawa bureau since 2000. Before that he worked for The Montreal Gazette and the National Post. He writes about Canadian politics and foreign policy. More

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