POLITICS
01/19/2018 15:48 EST | Updated 01/19/2018 20:22 EST

Trump's 'Stunning' Win Caught Canada's Public Servants Unprepared, Documents Suggest

Global Affairs Canada records from 2016 show the government scrambling.

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau and U.S. President Donald Trump participate in a joint news conference at the White House in Washington on Feb. 13, 2017.
Carlos Barria / Reuters
Prime Minister Justin Trudeau and U.S. President Donald Trump participate in a joint news conference at the White House in Washington on Feb. 13, 2017.

OTTAWA — Canada's public servants appear to have ignored the possibility of Donald Trump's becoming president of the United States and offered Prime Minister Justin Trudeau's government no contingency plans before the U.S. election, documents obtained by HuffPost Canada suggest.

Emails, memos, reports and briefing notes from September 2016 up until Trump's inauguration one year ago released to HuffPost under the Access to Information Act suggest that no one at Global Affairs Canada, in Canada's various consulates in the United States, or at the Canadian Embassy in Washington, D.C., planned for a possible Trump win.

Global Affairs Canada (GAC), the foreign affairs department, declined to comment for this story. A senior source in the Prime Minister's Office told HuffPost they had received very little from the bureaucracy.

Carlo Allegri / Reuters
Donald Trump speaks at his election night rally in Manhattan on Nov. 9, 2016.

Foreign Affairs Minister Chrystia Freeland, who was then the international trade minister, requested information about each presidential candidate's position on the North American Free Trade Agreement in the summer of 2016, her office said. Her spokesman, Adam Austen declined to provide supporting information for the period covered under the access to information request.

The very first mention of Trump in the documents from Global Affairs Canada is in an Oct. 4 report about Congress and the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) agreement, with a comment about how the Republican presidential candidate and the Democratic nominee, Hillary Clinton, each opposed the deal. The email also includes a brief summary of the U.S. presidential debate on Sept. 26, noting that Trump called the NAFTA agreement "defective" and "the single worst trade deal ever approved [in the United States]."

The next time Trump's name pops up is on Nov. 7 — one day before the election — in an email circulated among GAC staff sharing a summary of an essay by Brookings Institution scholar Thomas Wright. Wright discusses the implications of both a Clinton and a Trump win. The GAC brief offers a more thorough view of the potential impact of a Clinton win, but the email is later "revised to reflect election outcome," highlighting only the bullets dealing with Trump.

It contains statements, such as:

  • "Trump is not a blank slate or infinitely malleable on foreign policy. He has over the years consistently espoused three views on international relations: He opposes alliances, he opposes free trade, and he likes authoritarianism — Russia's especially."
  • "These are not messages crafted to play to his 2016 audiences. They are long standing, heart-felt beliefs: he means what he says."

The summary notes that Trump is 70 years old and "unlikely to change a world-view that is decades-old" even at a political cost. It highlights how, in 1987, when he was 41, he spent $95,000 to publish a full-page open letter in The New York Times, The Washington Post and the Boston Globe titled "There's Nothing Wrong with American Foreign and Defense Policy that a Little Backbone Can't Cure." The letter to Americans argued the United States should stop paying to defend countries that could afford to defend themselves, and it should use that money to take care of its own citizens.

Wright argues that Trump views the world economy as a zero-sum game, won't have any qualms about leaving any trade deals and is "not afraid of a trade war."

The summary note adds that the current people around Trump, his close circle of advisers, hold views on international affairs that "are considerably outside the mainstream."

Althia Raj/HuffPost Canada
The government was told Trump was unlikely to change his "world view."

Those two emails are the complete record of information before election night dealing with Trump's potential policies, released under the access to information program.

Just before Trump takes the stage to accept his victory, in the early hours of Nov. 9, however, the public service is shown struggling to make sense of it all.

"David, I assume Ottawa will provide us with lines following the election of Donald Trump. I expect a lot of media request (mostly the business press with a focus on Trade agreement).In the meantime, we will refuse any Press request," Pierre Alarie, Canada's ambassador to Mexico writes, on his BlackBerry at 2:28 a.m., to the then assistant deputy minister for the Americas, David Morrison.

At 4:31 a.m., Morrison — who is now the deputy minister — responds, saying he "will get you something."

"Overall, PM has made it clear for months that CDA would work with whoever became president, and that is what we will do," Morrison adds. "Watch closely a PM statement today and crib wording from that."

Earlier: Trudeau discusses "common ground" with Trump

At 3:02 that morning, after Clinton had declined to speak to her supporters and Trump had given a gracious speech, the Washington embassy sent a missive to headquarters in Ottawa.

"In a stunning upset, Donald J. Trump has achieved a narrow victory over Hillary Clinton and will become the 45th president of the United States," the first sentence reads. The briefing note said Trump was likely to raise a number of issues of interest to Canada in his first 100 days, including NAFTA renegotiations, withdrawals from both the TPP and the Paris climate agreement, and the possible approval of the Keystone XL pipeline.

"The story of the 2016 election is the return of the hidden white voter, who more than made up for any increases in Latino turnout," the note adds. "... the story of the 2016 election will be Trump's performance with non-college educated whites."

The last few sentences of the brief — after "Polls also suggested that the electorate was driven by fear" — are blacked out.

Government said it was prepared for Trump White House

Later that day, Canada's ambassador to the United States, David MacNaughton, held a telephone press conference in which he tried to play down the possibility that a Trump win would be catastrophic for Canada-U.S. political and trade relations.

The mutual trading relationship is beneficial to both parties, "and I think that the Trump people understand that," MacNaughton offered during the call with reporters. "It is in our mutual interest to work together to build a stronger economy, and I think that reality has already dawned on them."

MacNaughton wanted to tell journalists that the government was "ready to come to the table" and renegotiate NAFTA. "We're prepared to talk."

He later told the CBC that while the polls had predicted a different outcome, the government "certainly had been preparing for any eventuality, to that degree it wasn't a total surprise at all."

Graham Hughes/CP
Canada's Ambassador to the United States David MacNaughton is shown at a luncheon in Montreal on Nov. 16, 2016.

But when pressed about how it prepared, MacNaughton offers only that he met with people who had advised Trump in the past and "some people in Congress," quickly moving the conversation towards the outreach he was doing in Congress on both sides of the aisle, because Washington was bigger than the White House.

The only person MacNaughton named as someone around Trump was Jeff Sessions, then an Alabama senator, whom he said he had met "a month or so" ago and with whom he had had a lengthy conversation. The record later showed that conversation had occured in June.

* * *

Records show that in the days and weeks after Trump's win, staff at Global Affairs and in the Washington embassy scrambled to catch up and prepare their political masters for four years of Trump.

After a proactive embassy in Kiev offered headquarters, on Nov. 9, a report on the implications of the U.S. election results on Ukraine and as well as the Canadian policy vis-à-vis Ukraine, Foreign Affairs Minister Stéphane Dion's office asked the bureaucrats "for further reporting from missions on local reactions/views to the U.S. elections results, especially views/reactions from China, Israel, Japan, Russia, Saudi Arabia, Mexico and the EU."

By Nov. 14, five days after Trump's win, Global Affairs had compiled a list of some things Trump had said on the campaign trail, on the Mexico-U.S. border, his call to prosecute Clinton, Obamacare, immigration, lobbyists and taking on of the Washington elite/establishment.

A day later, on Nov. 15, the bureaucracy offered a 16-page summary of the impacts of the new administration's likely policies and potential areas of cooperation. Much of the document is censored, but some of the themes include:

  • Trump's commitment to build a state of the art missile defence system
  • NATO contributions — both Trump's statements as well as the fact the Obama administration had also highlighted NATO spending shortfalls,
  • The coalition against Daesh,
  • Asia-Pacific defence relations,
  • Counterterrorism,
  • The opioid crisis,
  • Climate change, and Trump's desire to eliminate two environmental regulations for every new one passed,
  • The Keystone XL pipeline,
  • The Canada-U.S. border,
  • United Nations, noting that Trump had said he would cancel billions in payments to UN climate change programs and use the money to fix America's water and environmental infrastructure."
  • G7/G20
  • Refugees (This section is heavily blacked out but notes that the United STates is expected to decrease the levels of, or halt entirely, refugee resettlement from Syria, as well as plans for "extreme vetting" of new immigrants and refugees from Muslim countries).
  • Global health initiatives, noting Trump would take a restrictive approach to sexual and reproductive health and rights,
  • The Arctic,
  • An entire section on human rights blanked out.

The document takes some of its information on Trump's agenda from the candidate's 100-day action plan speech of Oct. 22. Nobody at GAC, however, appears to have paid any attention to this speech until Trump was elected.

Global Affairs also prepared a question-and-answer sheet for its stakeholders about Canada's new relationship with the White House. It begins with: "How will/can Canada work with the President-elect" and covers such themes as what would it mean for Canada if the United STates did not support the TPP, and talking points on NAFTA, the benefits of trade with Canada, optimism on the softwood lumber file and Canada's position on the Keystone pipeline.

It also reflects some of the media questions the Washington embassy was receiving.

"Canadian values include promoting diversity and inclusion, enhancing gender equality, and welcome refugees. Are these values at odds with values in the United States?" a suggested question states.

"Canadians and Americans share the core values of caring for one another and helping those in need. Canada will continue to work with the U.S. to advance human rights and fairness, and to make a positive difference," is the suggested response.

Althia Raj/HuffPost
A screengrab of the question-and-answer sheet Global Affairs prepared for stakeholders in November 2016 about Canada's new relationship with the White House.

On Nov. 16, the Washington embassy asked the department of Citizenship and Immigration if there were updated information they could share with American journalists inquiring about U.S. citizens immigrating to Canada.

Briefing notes later focused on the international reaction to Trump's win and details about his new cabinet appointees and other senior members of his team.

On Nov. 18, in an email to MacNaughton, and copied to Trudeau's national security advisor and GAC employees, embassy staff note that Mike Pompeo, a three-term congressman and Tea Party member with ties to the Koch brothers has just been announced as Trump's nominee for CIA director.

"With no background in public service, it is questionable whether Pompeo has a comprehensive appreciation for the functions of the CIA as a bureaucratic instrument," two civil servants wrote. The implications for Canada are "not immediately evident," they noted. "Canada has not featured prominently and has rarely been mentioned in Pompeo's public discourse." Still, the men mentioned a 2011 bill that Pompeo introduced called for enhanced measures along the Canada and Mexico border "to gain control of the border."

A report about retired Lt.-Gen. Michael Flynn, announced as national security adviser, is heavily redacted.

Jeff Sessions described as 'climate change skeptic'

That same day, another staffer noted that Sessions, who "has long faced criticisms for racial overtones," had accepted the nomination for attorney general. The email noted that MacNaughton had spoken with Sessions soon after the election and met with the senator previously in June.

Sessions' other Canadian connections including spending two hours with a Canadian consul general in 2014 discussing trade, immigration and taxation, coming to Ottawa that same year with an inter-parliamentary group, and attending the Halifax International Security Forum in November 2010.

"But there are certainly some issues of interest to Canada on which the Senator has less friendly views," the email said, noting his opposition to TPP and concerns it would facilitate immigration increases, and his "unsympathetic" views on the Canadian softwood lumber position.

Sessions is also described supporting made-in-America energy and as "a climate change skeptic." He opposes legalizing marijuana but has been complimentary of Canada's immigration policy, which he viewed as more strategic than the U.S. approach, the note said.

Joshua Roberts / Reuters
U.S. Attorney General Jeff Sessions stands during a news conference in Washington on Dec. 15 2017.

Documents show staff dug deeply trying to find links to some of the people around Trump, such as South Carolina Governor Nikki Haley who would soon become the U.S. representative at the United Nations. A Nov. 23 email notes that Haley visited Canada in the spring of 2014 on a business mission and met then-prime minister Stephen Harper, and how she had sat at the head table with Canada's current U.S. ambassador during a 2016 Gridiron dinner, an annual roast of politicians and business leaders in Delaware.

Another email on Nov. 30 sums up the news of the day surrounding four new cabinet picks. Bureaucrat noted that Steve Mnuchin, the soon-to-be treasury secretary "has no government experience" and had declared his first priority to be lowering corporate tax rates to make the United States the most competitive country in the world. The note highlights that Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross is also a critic of free-trade agreements and that he owned the Sago mine in West Virginia when an explosion killed 12 miners there in 2006. Whatever the public servants thought of that explosion and any ties to Ross was blanked out from public release.

'Trump's victory came as a shock to many'

Documents also show that in the immediate aftermath of the election, bureaucrats — much like the rest of the world — seem to struggle to explain Trump's victory. Two days after his win, a briefing note — one of several to come — circulated explaining how Trump had pulled it off and why Clinton had been unable to repeat former U.S. president Barack Obama's voter coalition. "Donald Trump's victory came as a shock to many," it began.

"Unexpectedly, there was no surge of female voters in the polls," reads a sentence in an email containing press clippings. "Nearly a quarter of those who voted for Trump said he was unqualified to be president," another article noted.

Staff also appeared to share, in an undated record, a copy of a letter written by dozens of former national security and foreign policy officials who had served in Republican administrations pleading with the U.S. electorate not to vote for Trump. The letter, released in August of 2016, had argued that Trump "is not qualified to be President and Commander-in-Chief" and would "put at risk" the country's national security and well-being.

Jonathan Ernst / Reuters
U.S. President Donald Trump gives a thumbs up as he and first lady Melania Trump welcome Prime Minister Justin Trudeau and his wife Sophie Gregoire Trudeau to the White House on Oct. 11, 2017.

Roland Paris, a professor of public and international affairs at the University of Ottawa who served as Trudeau's global affairs and defence adviser until June 2016, cautioned that not all records might have been picked up in the ATIP.

"I would expect that the public service was considering all the possibilities," he told HuffPost Canada. "Still I think Trump's victory was not anticipated by anybody, apparently including Donald Trump himself," he said, referring to the recent allegations in the best-selling book "Fire and Fury" by Michael Wolff.

"There is contingency planning that takes place in the public service and there is contingency planning that takes place at the political level," Paris added, "and I have no doubt that there was consideration of the Trump victory scenario at the political level."

Canada's former ambassador to Washington, Derek Burney, who has also helped the Trudeau government manage the Trump relationship, told HuffPost he had heard a "similar story" about the bureaucracy.

More from HuffPost Canada:


"I ... think it is fair to say that Trump's election caught many in Ottawa and elsewhere by surprise. Whether that meant there were no contingency plans is another issue.

"It would have been normal, in my time at least, for the embassy to provide analyses of the campaign, together with elements of particular interest to Canada. Whether that happened and how far up the chain the reports penetrated is the key question."

Burney noted, however, that it "did not take much time for the body blows on NAFTA to register, and the government has certainly reacted correctly to that threat."

Indeed despite the unexpected result, the PMO responded swiftly to Trump's election. As HuffPost reported last year, during Trudeau's first phone call with the president-elect on Nov. 9, Trump expressed great admiration for Trudeau's father, Pierre Elliott Trudeau, and the relationship got off on a positive footing.

PM to speak at Ronald Reagan Presidential Foundation

Trudeau's senior staff, chief of staff Katie Telford, principal secretary Gerald Butts, MacNaughton and Freeland then spent considerable time courting Trump's entourage. Outreach to the United States extended beyond Trump, and Congress, to state governors and legislators, business leaders and a PR initiative that continues today.

On Friday, Trudeau's office announced that he will be heading to Los Angeles, San Francisco and Chicago Feb. 7 to 10, to "strengthen the deep bonds that united Canada and the United States."

While in L.A., Trudeau is scheduled to deliver remarks at the Ronald Reagan Presidential Foundation and Institute that underscore the interconnectedness of the Canada-U.S. economies in his remarks, the PMO said.

Also on HuffPost: Trudeau asked about Trump's reported vulgar description of Haiti