OTTAWA — Tuesday’s cliffhanger of a U.S. presidential election leaves Prime Minister Justin Trudeau and the Canadian government watching with little else to do.
As the results trickled in throughout the night and early morning Wednesday, Democratic contender Joe Biden led in the electoral college but Republican incumbent President Donald Trump won key battleground states of Ohio, Iowa, and Florida. Shortly before 1 a.m., the race was still too close to call.
Biden told his supporters in Wilmington, Del. that he believes he is on track to win the election.
“We knew because of the unprecedented early vote and the mail-in vote that it was going to take a while,” he said. “We’re going to have to be patient until… the hard work of tallying votes is finished. And it ain’t over until every vote is counted, every ballot is counted.”
Biden said results could be known later Wednesday morning but hedged it could also take longer.
“It’s not my place or Donald Trump’s place to declare who has won this election. That’s the decision of the American people,” he said. “But I’m optimistic about this outcome.”
Trump claims victory as ballots still being counted
Flanked by a wall of American flags behind him in the East Room of the White House, Trump spoke to the media just after 2:20 a.m. and said without evidence that “a very sad group of people is trying to disenfranchise” his supporters.
With ballots still being counted in key battleground states, Trump claimed victory and cast doubt over wins made by his Democratic rival. Again, without evidence, he warned there may be “major” electoral fraud in the world’s oldest democracy.
Trump also said he plans to go to the Supreme Court to dispute the vote.
“This is a fraud on the American public. This is an embarrassment to our country. We were getting ready to win the election. Frankly, we did win the election,” he said.
Vice-President Mike Pence was more measured with his choice of words, acknowledging around 2:30 a.m. that ballots were still being counted and they were “on the road to victory.”
Trudeau, his senior advisers, the Canadian ambassador in Washington, and consuls general across the United States have prepared for the possibility the election result may not be known for days, weeks, possibly even longer than that.
Watch: Trudeau says Canada ready to work with next U.S. president, no matter who wins
But the preparations, according to those involved who spoke on the condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to discuss such matters publicly, involve mostly ensuring that nobody in government, cabinet ministers or diplomats, hopefully not even the premiers, says something that could come back to hurt them in the months ahead.
Aside from talking about the possibility of the scenario, HuffPost Canada has been told, little else materially has been done — and that’s not unusual, according to those who’ve seen this plotline before.
Eddie Goldenberg was a senior adviser to prime minister Jean Chrétien in 2000 during the Al Gore vs. George W. Bush election when the vote was too close to call. Gore had won 250 electoral votes and Bush 246, but everything hinged on Florida and its 25 electoral votes to push the winner over the finish line with 270. The battle over recounts went all the way to the Supreme Court a month later.
Canada was in the middle of its own federal election, so the Liberals were less preoccupied with the uncertain results than they are now.
“Mr. Chrétien was sort of joking about the fact that you could get the result of an election in Canada in two hours and it took the Americans six weeks. But the reality was we knew that neither Bush nor Gore were complaining that the system was rigged and it was cheating and all of that. It was really just a question of waiting and seeing who was going to win,” Goldenberg told HuffPost Canada
There was no question about violence in the streets, he added. “You were certain there was going to be a result.”
Trudeau sought to reassure Canadians Tuesday that no matter what happens south of the border, the government has a handle on it.
“We are going to continue to watch, and make sure we are standing up for Canadian interests every step of the way,” he told reporters. “Canada is well positioned and ready to continue to work with the American people and the American government regardless of the outcome of tonight,” he added.
Deputy Prime Minister and Finance Minister Chrystia Freeland echoed that message. “I really would like to assure Canadians today that our government is absolutely ready, and we have thoughtfully prepared for all eventualities, and I’m really confident that we have a plan, no matter what happens.”
“We can’t do anything about it, as Canadians, OK,” said Goldenberg, who is now a partner in the law firm of Bennett Jones LLP. “All this stuff about contingency plans is bullshit, I’m not sure what the plans are.”
The most important thing the Canadian government needs to know, he said, is who controls the Senate, and what the impact on the economy will be. “Those are the things you need to be worried about.”
‘Most countries are going to wait’ before congratulating winner
In the immediate future, the government will have to decide when to congratulate the winner of the election, said Peter Boehm, a former deputy minister and the prime minister’s personal representative during the G7 summit in 2018. Boehm, who was the ambassador to the Organization of American States in Washington in 2000 when the hanging chads became part of the lexicon, recalled the Germans’ jumping the gun and congratulating Bush on winning the election.
“I think everyone is going to try to be prudent…. Most countries are going to wait,” he said. They will want clarity, and clarity will come, Boehm said, only when someone concedes they lost the election.
Gerald Butts, the vice chairman of the Eurasia Group and Trudeau’s former principal secretary, told HuffPost Canada’s political podcast “Follow-Up” that his main concern if he were still in the PMO would be that any possible resulting violent clashes from election night might affect Canadians residing in the United States.
“Most Canadians tend to live in mostly urban centres in the United States, where if there were … violent protests, or violent clashes between protesters, my main concern would be the health and safety of the many, many Canadians.”
From a macroeconomic perspective, he said, things would have to get really bad for the markets to move.
Listen to the latest episode of “Follow-Up”
Freeland addressed some of the consular preoccupation Tuesday, pledging to “be there” for Canadians living outside the country.
If violence erupts, consular messages may be sent to Canadians living in the United States and officials at the border may be on higher alert, one official from the Prime Minister’s Office told HuffPost. But the general view from Trudeau’s office on Wellington Street a week out from the campaign’s end was that some of the “dramatic scenarios” wouldn’t happen.
If the result is unknown for weeks, the relationship that exists at the national and subnational level will continue. That includes work on the COVID-19 pandemic, the border closing (currently shut until Nov. 21), and any trade irritants. But, the adviser said he was fairly confident the government would not be talking even informally to, for example, Biden’s camp before a winner was declared.
The Canadian government has spent months preparing for either candidate to win, with more time spent preparing for a potential Biden win, HuffPost was told.
The government plans to rely on the Team Canada approach, which they used successfully in the renegotiation of NAFTA, to continue to build links to key stakeholders inside and outside the administration, business leaders, labour leaders, to fight back against trade protectionist measures such as “Buy American” policies.
Ottawa has been in touch with Alberta’s new man in Washington, former Conservative MP James Rajotte, on the possibility that a Biden win could signal the end of the Keystone pipeline. Several people in the Prime Minister’s Office are looking at ways Canada could actively participate and engage in Biden’s ambitious climate goals. There is anticipation a Biden administration would re-engage with multilateral organizations, such as the World Health Organization.
Trudeau hosted a state dinner in Ottawa for Biden in 2016 after Trump’s election win. During the dinner, both men appeared to get along quite well, with Biden urging Trudeau to become the progressive multilateral leader the world needed.
Insiders say Trudeau also has developed a warm relationship with Trump. Despite the bombastic tweets and comments, those behind the scenes insist the relationship is very cordial and perhaps even warm. What would another four years of Trump unencumbered by re-election objectives mean? It’s unclear.
“If there’s one thing we’ve learned in the last four years, it’s to expect the unexpected and to prepare as best we can,” one adviser said.
With files from Ryan Maloney, Zi-Ann Lum