We know Donald Trump and his team took their animosity toward Canada in a rather hysterical direction over the weekend. What we don't know is why.
At a press conference from the G-7 summit Quebec on Saturday, a reporter asked the American president about frayed relationships with allied leaders. Upon learning that the reporter was with CNN, Trump whined about the news organization for a while, before bragging about his personal closeness with German Chancellor Angela Merkel, French President Emanuel Macron, and Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau.
"I would say that the level of relationship is a 10," he boasted. "We have a great relationship. Angela and Emmanuel and Justin. I would say the relationship is a 10."
Soon after, the Canadian leader hosted a press conference in which he repeated the same things he's said publicly and privately for quite a while, at which point Trump turned to Twitter and inadvertently suggested that CNN reporter he chastised was on to something.
"Based on Justin's false statements at his news conference, and the fact that Canada is charging massive Tariffs to our U.S. farmers, workers and companies, I have instructed our U.S. Reps not to endorse the Communique as we look at Tariffs on automobiles flooding the U.S. Market!"PM Justin Trudeau of Canada acted so meek and mild during our @G7 meetings only to give a news conference after I left saying that, 'US Tariffs were kind of insulting' and he 'will not be pushed around.' Very dishonest & weak. Our Tariffs are in response to his of 270% on dairy!"
Members of Trump's White House team, taking their misguided cues from their boss, piled on yesterday. Larry Kudlow, the director of the White House's National Economic Council, called Trudeau's comments a "betrayal," adding that the prime minister "stabbed us in the back" and delivered a "slap in the face." (How one might simultaneously stab someone in the back and slap someone in the face is unclear.)
Peter Navarro, a top Trump adviser on trade, added on Fox News, in apparent reference to the Canadian prime minister, "There's a special place in hell for any foreign leader that engages in bad faith diplomacy with Donald J Trump and then tries to stab him in the back on the way out the door."
It's worth unpacking some of this, because amid the nonsense, the White House accidentally said something interesting.
The oddity about the broader dynamic is that Trudeau did largely the opposite of what Team Trump claimed In his press conference. Indeed, the prime minister tried to downplay differences among G-7 members, and he offered no meaningful criticisms of Trump or his administration. The White House's tantrum against one of America's closest allies seemed wholly unconnected to real-world events.
But take another look at Trump's tweets and note that he said his tariffs are "in response to" Canada's trade policy on dairy products. This is one of those rare instances in which Trump made a mistake by accidentally sharing his genuine beliefs.
Because when the president announced his tariffs on steel and aluminum, the official line was that the policy was necessary on national security grounds. By way of Twitter, Trump effectively admitted that his stated rationale was a lie.
And that may yet take the debate in an interesting direction. As Jon Chait noted, "[I]f there was any possible way for his tariffs to fail in court, it would be because he decided to blurt out an explicit confession that his motive is not the one he is legally obligated to base it on."
Trump World can't even throw a dishonest tantrum about an imaginary problem without screwing up in important ways.
Postscript: For what it's worth, the United States already negotiated a pretty good post-NAFTA trade deal with Canada, in which Canada made some real concessions, including on dairy imports. It was called the Trans Pacific Partnership (TPP), which Trump killed, despite not knowing what it is.
The question for this White House is simple: if Obama could negotiate a good trade deal with Canada, and make real progress on issues important to many U.S. industries, why can't Trump? Is it because maybe the Republican president just isn't much a deal-maker?
* Correction: I originally misidentified the name of the Canadian province. The above text has been corrected.