WASHINGTON — Prime Minister Justin Trudeau intends to avoid commenting during his upcoming U.S. trip on the hottest topic in American politics: the presidential candidacy of Donald Trump.
“The prime minister feels very strongly about this — he doesn’t get involved in domestic politics,” said one Canadian official.
“His visit to another country is not an opportunity to do that.”
There would be ample opportunity during his three-day state visit to Washington next week for Trudeau to comment on the polarizing figure in the U.S. presidential race, should he choose to do so.
A joint news conference with President Barack Obama is planned next Thursday, with a luncheon at the State Department to follow. Trudeau will also make a toast at a state dinner and address a Trump-abhorring audience at a gathering of progressive think tanks.
He has, in the past, subtly expressed his misgivings about Trump’s policies. Asked last year about the idea of suspending Muslim travel, Trudeau said he didn’t want to comment on American politics, but stands against the politics of fear, division, intolerance and hatred.
Now the prospect of a Trump presidential nomination is a real topic in Washington, with the city’s Republican establishment in full-blown panic mode and the party divided. Trump’s latest primary wins reportedly even drove a 350-per-cent spike in Google searches about moving to Canada.
U.S. media will inevitably draw contrasts between the foreign leader who welcomes Syrian refugees at the airport and their own presidential contender, who in addition to blocking Muslim travellers wants to send back refugees.
Those media comparisons have already started.
The Washington Post has run a couple of items this week including a piece titled, “The many ways Canada’s Trudeau is the anti-Trump.” It posted videos emphasizing the almost comically stark differences between them. In one clip, Trudeau wears a pink T-shirt and speaks against bullying, and in another refers to himself as a feminist.
The Trump clips, by contrast, show him talking about wanting to punch a protester in the face, and another clip shows debate moderator Megyn Kelly mentioning the times he’s called women “fat pig,” “dog” and “slob.”
“The prime minister will always state his values,” said the Canadian official, who spoke on condition of anonymity in order to discuss advance details of the trip. “But he’s not interested in stirring up domestic politics.”
Trudeau offered a hint this week of the approach he intends to take in Washington, telling a Vancouver radio host that it’s important to him and to the Canadian economy that he get along with whoever’s elected president.
A former Obama White House official was adamant: Trudeau is better off steering clear of the Trump minefield.
Brett Bruen said it’s not only acceptable but even welcome for Trudeau to discuss his own values, and on refugees perhaps try stirring the conscience of potentially like-minded Americans.
But Bruen, the former White House director of global engagement, also said it would be a bad idea for the neighbour to butt into the messy argument within America’s political household.
A simple rule of thumb? Talk about ideas — not people.
“It gets Canada, it gets the prime minister, entangled in the U.S. political process — which right now is so fraught with obstacles that even Americans have a hard time navigating through it. I think you want to stay above that fray,” said Bruen, who now advises clients at his firm, Global Situation Room.
“You don’t want political problems to spill over into business issues and the co-operation between governments, and certainly into the perception Americans have of Canada as a neutral neighbour.”
Several Canadian ex-ambassadors to the U.S. offer similar guidance.
“My strong advice to him would be to stay away from it,” said Derek Burney.
“The media will want him to say that Donald Trump poses a threat to humanity…. It’s not for him. It’s not for a Canadian prime minister to inject himself into a debate as heated as this one.”
Burney said he recalled American officials getting annoyed when their Canadian counterparts would go to Washington and grandstand for audiences back home.
Talking about refugees is different, Burney said — because it’s actually a file the two countries are working on.