Speaking this week with The Globe and Mail, Mexico's foreign affairs minister recalled the unpleasant surprise that led President Enrique Pena Nieto to cancel a meeting with U.S. President Donald Trump shortly after the latter's inauguration.
"I was in Washington, and we had some very constructive meetings on different topics with the White House staff," Luis Videgaray explained. On trade, on immigration, Mr. Videgaray – a former finance minister whose return to cabinet in January was apparently based on perceived ability to work with the new administration – thought he was making headway in preparation for the two presidents' sit-down.
So he was caught off guard the next morning, when Mr. Trump pronounced via Twitter that unless Mexico was willing to pay for a border wall to help keep Mexicans out of the United States, his meeting with Mr. Pena Nieto would be pointless – leaving the Mexican President, already under domestic fire for trying to play nice with Mr. Trump, little choice but to pull the plug.
It was an anecdote that passingly touched upon one of the biggest problems for all countries, Canada included, in trying to deal with the Trump administration during its chaotic early days: At any given moment, it is impossible to know whether officials with whom they are speaking actually have the ability to deliver on their promises. And if they do then, they might not by the next morning.
For Canada, that uncertainty is less fraught than for Mexico and other countries Mr. Trump is inclined to target with punitive policies. But as Ottawa seeks to advance or protect its interests on an array of issues – from the resolution of the ongoing softwood lumber dispute to the broader renegotiation of North American free-trade agreement (NAFTA) provisions to border traffic and security – it makes for an important caveat to the generally positive reviews for how Justin Trudeau's government has handled relationship-building.
It is always a challenge, this early into a new White House, to get the lay of the land from outside it. But Mr. Trump's is a whole other ball game.
For one thing, the appointments and staffing processes have been unusually slow. Mr. Trump's commerce secretary, who is supposed to oversee the NAFTA talks, has yet to be confirmed. The halls of the State Department, ordinarily a primary entry point for foreign officials, are said to be largely empty, owing in part to an exodus of non-political staff during Mr. Trump's transition into office.
For another, even when officials are in place, Mr. Trump's management style – true to how he conducted himself in business – is to play officials or informal advisers against each other as they constantly compete for his attention.
It is at times unclear if Mr. Trump is up to speed with what is being done on his behalf at all before he reacts instinctively and emotionally to whatever he sees on the cable news he watches religiously. And at other points, it is not known where and from whom the President, who it is said still answers his cell phone personally, is getting his information.
Canada does seem to have adapted to all this fluidity better than most countries, and perhaps even embraced it.
In Chrystia Freeland, Mr. Trudeau chose a Foreign Affairs Minister suited to informal relationship-building with anyone who might be in Mr. Trump's ear, from business tycoons to his son-in-law, Jared Kushner. (That is a far cry from her predecessor, Stéphane Dion, who would have expected a more linear relationship with the Secretary of State, and been squeamish about schmoozing within Mr. Trump's circles.)
Mr. Trudeau's ambassador to Washington, David MacNaughton, is similarly inclined toward networking. The Prime Minister's Office has been somewhat reconfigured to allow co-ordination of inevitably confusing cross-government communication with the Trump administration. Outside help, most prominently former prime minister Brian Mulroney – a friend of Mr. Trump's with whom the Liberals would not previously have imagined doing business – has been enlisted.
And so far, Ottawa seems to have dealt decently with the precarious business of engaging Mr. Trump himself, broadly looping him in on its issues of concern without catching him off guard with detailed questions to which the briefings-averse President might respond poorly. When Mr. Trudeau raised the softwood lumber issue during a call with him on Thursday, for instance, it seems to have been aimed at getting the dispute – around the potential imposition of duties on exports to the United States – onto his radar just enough that he gets someone in his administration to sort it out.
But the possibility remains that even if someone is so charged, they will quickly be out of position to make good on it. On matters big and small, it still requires a sixth sense to figure out who is in control, and for how long.
This week alone provided ample reminder of that. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson was reported to have been marginalized, as Mr. Kushner by some accounts runs a shadow department.
The potential for unpleasant surprises has not gone down much since Mr. Videgaray's Washington visit a month ago. It seems optimistic, with this President, to assume it ever much will.