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Successfully containing Trump on NAFTA? That depends on his mood

"I know for a fact that every single day at the White House it's a situation of trying to contain him." Bob Corker, Republican Senator from Tennessee

So it is for team Canada in dealing with the issue of NAFTA and Donald Trump. On Wednesday, at a meeting with Justin Trudeau, he was contained for another day. He didn't blow up the North American free-trade agreement. Not in the presence of a Prime Minister who, on account of Mr. Trudeau playing him smartly, Mr. Trump continues to like.

But give this President a little more time. Get him in one of his rancorous, fact-free, logic-deprived stirrings of the mind, and he won't be contained. You could well have a situation, Newt Gingrich was saying at a NAFTA panel discussion with Stephen Harper a few blocks away, that Mr. Trump finds himself "bored one morning" and decides to throw it out. That simple.

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Mr. Trudeau seemed well aware of the random rush of possibilities, telling reporters assembled on his embassy rooftop that Canadians have to "be prepared for anything." Though his meeting was friendly, there was no indication of big advances on the trade issues in dispute.

Mr. Harper, looking relaxed and well fed, actually sounded sympathetic to Mr. Trudeau's position. "What is the American problem?" asked the former PM who compiled a handsome record on free-trade agreements. "I don't really know." It can't be the balance of trade, he pointed out, because Canada is in deficit with the U.S. It can't be issues like dairy because they are too small. There's the automobile sector, he added, where improvements can be made.

Mr. Harper made the salient point that neither Canada nor Mexico likely have anything to offer Mr. Trump that could constitute a big win for him. Compromises won't do, not with the big promise to overhaul trade that Mr. Trump made in his election campaign. And that, he said, could lead to cancellation. "Donald Trump would be willing to take the economic and political risk of that under certain circumstances."

But there could be a soft landing. Mr. Trump is increasingly realizing that his problem with NAFTA is Mexico. He raised the possibility, responding to a question, that a separate bilateral accord with Canada could be worked out. "It's possible we won't be able to reach a deal with one or the other. But in the meantime, we'll be able to make a deal with one." With Canada, a new bilateral deal would entail a major revamp of the original free-trade agreement with the U.S. before it was folded into NAFTA. Canadian officials have hardly begun to explore such a possibility. At his press conference in which he skirted several pointed questions, Mr. Trudeau said he preferred the continuation and amelioration of the continental accord. But he didn't rule out a new bilateral pact.

It's a compromise that could well suit Mr. Trump who could continue to train his guns on Mexico. It could spare him some wrath of Congress. As Mr. Gingrich said at the NAFTA panel, "I don't think there's any appetite for blowing it up except the occasional tweet."

While in Washington, Mr. Trudeau took an unusual step for a Prime Minister of meeting with congressional lawmakers to drive home the value of NAFTA. Many of them apparently didn't take much convincing.

As well, Mr. Trudeau had his charm offensive working the night previous at an advancement for women's event. There, he sat with the President's daughter Ivanka, with whom he carved out a rapport on women's issues shortly after becoming PM. What a way to soften up the President before sitting down with him and discussing tough issues.

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Some of the discussion did get thorny, notably on the matter of the Bombardier-Boeing dispute.

But overall, the mood remained positive. To begin the meeting, Mr. Trump had told everyone what a great fellow the Canadian PM was.

At the personal level, the containment strategy worked. At the issue level, we'll see what kind of mood Mr. Trump is in tomorrow. Or the next day.

Trudeau remains optimistic for a positive outcome to NAFTA negotiations
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About the Author
Public affairs columnist

Lawrence Martin is an Ottawa-based public affairs columnist and the author of ten books, including six national best sellers. More

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