From popsicles to Trump tweets: how US-Canada trade talks stalled

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It was about 10:30 pm when Chrystia Freeland emerged from a meeting with Robert Lighthizer, saying she had but a few words with the US Trade Representative.

Having spent just minutes in the building where she’s participated in marathon talks aiming to reach a deal with the US to overhaul the North American Free Trade Agreement, Canada’s Foreign Minister hit a less optimistic note than earlier that Thursday, when she had said both sides were “making progress.”

Ever concerned about reporters — her former job — Freeland had even taken care that afternoon to bring popsicles to the two dozen journalists roasting under the sun overwhelming the US capital.

She noted several times the “good will” among negotiators holding intense talks practically day and night.

Not long before, during an electoral rally in Indiana, US President Donald Trump had cast a blunt threat towards his neighbor to the north: “We are replacing NAFTA with a beautiful, brand new US-Mexico trade deal.”

Canada must lift barriers and tariffs, he said.

The US leader was likely referring to measures protecting Canada’s dairy industry, which he has lambasted on multiple occasions.

– ‘Win-win-win’ –
Come Friday, the mood remained tense.

Upon arriving for the first meeting of the day, Freeland said she was eagerly awaiting what Lighthizer had to say, having had the night to mull things over.

Perhaps by coincidence or maybe out of necessity, the US trade representative broke his silence for the first time since Tuesday, saying Canada has not compromised on a key sticking point.

“There have been no concessions by Canada on agriculture,” he said.

But it was mostly a report from the Toronto Star that made noise in the US capital, with the outlet saying Trump boasted in an interview that he was playing hardball with Canada in the talks.

“If I say no — the answer’s no,” he was quoted as saying off-the-record during an interview with the Bloomberg agency, emphasizing that a potential deal would be made on US terms.

Trump then characteristically lashed out on Twitter: “Wow, I made OFF THE RECORD COMMENTS to Bloomberg concerning Canada, and this powerful understanding was BLATANTLY VIOLATED.”

But he steered far from denying the comments, tweeting that “At least Canada knows where I stand!”

Later on Friday, he again tweeted, saying he “still can’t believe that Bloomberg violated a firm OFF THE RECORD statement.”

The comments stirred Canadian fear that Americans are not negotiating in good faith, and a Canadian source told AFP that Ottawa voiced disapproval to Lighthizer.

Freeland, speaking at a press conference, ostensibly ignored Trump’s offensive remarks, emphasizing that it was Lighthizer, not Trump, at the negotiating table.

“With good will and flexibility on all sides, I know we can get there,” she said. “We know that a win-win-win agreement is within reach.”

Trump, meanwhile, tweeted once more early Saturday, saying “I love Canada, but they’ve taken advantage of our Country for many years!”

Talks are to resume Wednesday in Washington.