World News

Trump Repeats False Claim About Canada After Admitting Uncertainty Over Figure

Posted March 15, 2018 8:36 p.m. EDT

WASHINGTON — President Donald Trump on Thursday repeated his false assertion that the United States runs a trade deficit with Canada, the morning after privately telling Republican donors that he had deliberately insisted on that claim in a meeting with Prime Minister Justin Trudeau of Canada without knowing whether it was true.

Trump’s private admission to having a loose grasp of the facts and his public refusal to back down from the incorrect statement — the United States has an overall surplus in trade with Canada — were vivid illustrations of the president’s cavalier attitude about the truth, and a reminder of how that approach has taken hold at the White House.

Sarah Huckabee Sanders, the White House press secretary, said Trump had chosen his figures selectively in the conversation with Trudeau and in a subsequent Twitter post that repeated the claim. The president was referring only to the trade of goods, Sanders said, which ignores the larger trade surplus in services the United States exports to Canada.

And in a briefing with reporters, she acknowledged that Trump had fabricated an anecdote he told the donors about unfair trading practices — Japanese officials, he claimed, conduct a test on U.S. cars by dropping a bowling ball on their hoods from 20 feet high, and those that dent are barred from being imported.

“Obviously, he’s joking about this particular test,” Sanders told reporters who confronted her about the veracity of the tale. “But it illustrates the creative ways some countries are able to keep American goods out of their markets.”

Her explanation came two weeks after Hope Hicks, the White House communications director, told lawmakers on Capitol Hill that she sometimes told white lies on Trump’s behalf.

The latest instance of Trump’s bending the truth emerged after The Washington Post published an account of the president’s boasting about his disingenuous exchange with Trudeau at a fundraising dinner Wednesday night in Missouri. On Thursday, the president refused to back down from the erroneous claim about the trade balance between the United States and Canada.

“We do have a Trade Deficit with Canada, as we do with almost all countries (some of them massive),” Trump wrote on Twitter. In an audio recording from the dinner obtained by The Post, a transcript of which was published Thursday, Trump recounted how he pressed that point in a meeting with Trudeau even though he had “no idea” whether it was true.

“P.M. Justin Trudeau of Canada, a very good guy, doesn’t like saying that Canada has a Surplus vs. the U.S. (negotiating), but they do,” Trump added in his tweet.

The United States ran a trade surplus of $600 million in goods and services with Canada in January, according to the Commerce Department, a metric that reflects the difference between what the United States exports to Canada and what it imports from that country. In 2016, the United States had a trade surplus with Canada of $12.5 billion, according to a fact sheet posted on the website of the U.S. trade representative.

But during the fundraiser for a Senate candidate in Missouri, Trump said he had refused to concede the point in a meeting with Trudeau, as the prime minister repeatedly pushed back.

“He said, ‘No, no, we have no trade deficit with you, we have none; Donald, please,'” Trump told the donors according to the transcript, calling Trudeau a “nice guy, good-looking.”

“I said, ‘Wrong, Justin, you do.’ I didn’t even know,” Trump said. “I had no idea. I just said, ‘You’re wrong.’ You know why? Because we’re so stupid.”

Trump’s retelling drew rebukes from some diplomats and lawmakers who argued that it reflected a dangerous penchant by the commander in chief to misrepresent the truth.

“The president’s admission that he’s literally making things up while speaking face-to-face with a world leader should stop us all in our tracks,” said Rep. Eliot L. Engel, D-N.Y., the ranking member of the Foreign Affairs Committee. “How can any other government — ally or adversary — have any confidence in what our president says when he admits to lying?”

The account was particularly extraordinary given that it reflected Trump’s willingness to dissemble even with a close ally of the United States, albeit one he has taken on aggressively in recent months as he presses to renegotiate the North American Free Trade Agreement and secure terms that are more advantageous to the United States.

During the conversation, the president said he and Trudeau had tangled repeatedly about the trade balance, with the prime minister saying, “Nope, we have no trade deficit,” and Trump ultimately sending an aide to, “Check, because I can’t believe it.”

The president then claimed that his contention had been validated, appearing to quote an aide he said had told him, “'Well, sir, you’re actually right. We have no deficit, but that doesn’t include energy and timber. But when you do, we lose $17 billion a year.’ It’s incredible.”

Sanders repeated that rationale during her briefing Thursday, saying that Trump had been “accurate” in his assertion to Trudeau. In a tweet, she later said both she and the president had been referring to the more than $17 billion trade deficit in goods last year between the United States and Canada.

Census Bureau data show that, when trade in services was counted, the surplus was $2.8 billion. While Trump has focused almost exclusively on trade in manufactured goods, his advisers note that omitting trade in services produces a skewed picture of the United States’ standing.

“Focusing only on the trade in goods alone ignores the United States’ comparative advantage in services,” the president’s Council of Economic Advisers wrote last month in a report. Trade with the United States is a critical part of Canada’s export-dependent economy. But the actions and statements from the Trump administration concerning the economic relationship between the two countries have provoked equal parts anxiety, puzzlement and anger in Canada.

Marc Garneau, who is the chairman of the Canada-U.S. relations committee in Trudeau’s Cabinet, on Thursday rejected the president’s deficit claim.

“At this point, it’s very important to point out that there is over $2 billion a day of trade between our two countries, and overall annually the United States has a small surplus with Canada,” Garneau told reporters in Montreal.

The account of the president’s slapdash approach to statistics comes after a dispute between Canada and the United States over potentially crippling duties on steel and aluminum that the president introduced last week.

The sanctions were temporarily suspended in Canada’s case, pending renegotiation of NAFTA. Officials in Trump’s administration insisted that the United States runs a steel trade deficit with Canada even though data from both governments show that trade is balanced.

Trump’s top trade negotiators have presented a list of demands for revising NAFTA that Canada has declared unacceptable. Trudeau has said that Canada is prepared to abandon NAFTA rather than accept a “bad deal,” and Trump has similarly threatened to withdraw from the pact.

Bruce A. Heyman, the U.S. ambassador to Canada under President Barack Obama, said that Trump’s approach was “creating a crisis where none existed before.”

“Lying to your friends only hurts the relationship,” Heyman wrote on Twitter. “Canada has been there for us thru thick and thin. How can you just casually damage this relationship?”