08/16/2017 17:20 EDT | Updated 08/17/2017 19:25 EDT

Are We Seriously Negotiating A Free Trade Deal With Donald Trump?

Sitting down for talks with the White House legitimizes an increasingly illegitimate presidency.

Chris Wattie / Reuters
Canada's Foreign Minister Chrystia Freeland takes part in an event at the University of Ottawa in Ottawa, Aug. 14, 2017. Freeland was in Washington, D.C., on Wednesday for the launch of NAFTA renegotiations.

Foreign Affairs Minister Chrystia Freeland was in Washington, D.C. on Wednesday to start the first round of NAFTA negotiations.

But Washington was a bit distracted by another matter — the evolving scandal surrounding U.S. President Donald Trump's apparent unwillingness to condemn the white nationalists who had gathered in Charlottesville, Va., sparking violence that left anti-racist protester Heather Heyer dead, and 19 others injured.

In blaming "both sides" for the conflict, Trump may have personally dealt the most serious blow yet to his own credibility. Pundits are openly wondering whether he is intentionally fanning the flames of hatred; business leaders are rapidly distancing themselves from him; foreign leaders are doing what Trump would not by condemning hate.

Kevin Lamarque / Reuters
U.S. President Donald Trump stops to respond to more questions about his responses to the violence, injuries and deaths at the "Unite the Right" rally in Charlottesville as he walks away flanked by U.S. Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin (left) and U.S. Secret Service agents (right) after speaking to the media in the lobby of Trump Tower in New York, August 15. Trump's blaming of "both sides" for the violence has damaged his credibility.

And into this walks Freeland, optimistically ready to negotiate a new and better North American Free Trade Agreement. In her opening remarks, she struck a positive and friendly note, giving a shout-out to U.S. and Mexican crews battling wildfires in British Columbia.

Good manners, for sure, but it was as if the world outside that room, the world engulfed by the crisis that is Donald Trump, didn't exist. Yet it does, and Canada's government looks strangely detached from reality when it makes these pleasant overtures to the Trump administration.

Are we seriously trying to negotiate a deal with a president who has just caused the worst racial crisis in America since the 1950s? A president who has become isolated from the business community he's supposedly representing in negotiations? A president virtually every world leader wants to distance themselves from?

At this point, sitting down with the Trump administration to negotiate a new trade deal is, in effect, legitimizing a White House that is facing a massive legitimacy deficit.

Yet what choice does Canada really have? Walking away from the table on principle would just give Donald Trump an excuse to "tear up NAFTA," as he has promised to do if he can't get a new deal he finds acceptable.

More about NAFTA negotiations taking place in Washington:

It's such a minefield that I have to ask again: Are we seriously negotiating a trade deal with Donald Trump?

Maybe for Trump, that "seriously" part is missing. He has shown a glaring nonchalance towards his Republican Party's legislative agenda. He met the GOP's complete and utter failure to reform health care first with a shrug, then with petulance.

In this seeming apathy lies Canada's — and Mexico's — hopes for NAFTA talks. Because if Trump is as unengaged with NAFTA as he was with health care, the matter will likely be left in the hands of the experts — the people in the three NAFTA countries' foreign affairs and trade departments, who actually understand the issues and may be able to hammer out an improved deal.

Secret hope for Canada

But Trump's rhetoric on the campaign trail puts him in a quandary. He called NAFTA the worst trade deal the U.S. ever signed, and if he is to come out of these talks with anything that looks vaguely like victory, he will have to point to some major reforms.

If Trump were personally involved in NAFTA negotiations, it would likely mean a far worse deal for Canada, with reduced access to U.S. markets and more trade barriers in the form of protectionist U.S. policies.

So here is what I believe is the Canadian government's secret hope for these talks: That Trump is ultimately forced into accepting a trade deal that is largely the same as the one that exists today, but with some tweaks at the margins.

There is good reason to believe this could happen. For one thing, it's becoming clear that Trump has lost control of the agenda, both in the White House and throughout the executive branch.

His pronouncements are often contradicted by government officials. His hawkish rhetoric on North Korea was toned down by his own Secretary of State, Rex Tillerson. And he had no choice but to sign into law sanctions against Russia that he opposed. Senate Republicans turned against him and forced his hand.

AFP/Getty Images
US President Donald Trump speaks after touring Snap-On Tools in Kenosha, Wisconsin, April 18, 2017, prior to signing the Buy American, Hire American Executive Order.

Could something like that be repeated with NAFTA? Yes, it could, and it's likely what Canadian and Mexican officials are hoping for.

But will it happen? The U.S.'s opening salvo on Wednesday made it clear that, at least rhetorically, they mean to take a hard line on talks.

"I want to be clear that [Trump] is not interested in a mere tweaking of a few provisions and a couple of updated chapters," U.S. trade representative Robert Lighthizer said during opening remarks. "We feel that NAFTA has fundamentally failed many, many Americans and needs major improvement."

That kind of rhetoric is meant to show that the Trump administration means business. But when it comes down to negotiating specifics, it could turn out to be little more than window dressing.

As a trading nation, we Canadians find ourselves in a strange place: Hoping that the president of the United States is sufficiently out to lunch to allow the adults to keep him from sabotaging our trade relations.

Let the charade begin.

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