Republicans can’t believe it has come to this: The United States is now clashing with Canada.
Already rattled by President Donald Trump’s steel and aluminum tariffs on key U.S. allies, GOP lawmakers were increasingly alarmed Monday by the administration’s condemnation of the United States’ neighbor to the north. Canada is one of the nation’s closest trading and military partners, but on Sunday, senators were stunned when top Trump adviser Peter Navarro said that there’s a “special place in hell” for Prime Minister Justin Trudeau.
Asked whether he’s concerned about the U.S. relationship with Canada, Senate Finance Chairman Orrin Hatch (R-Utah) replied: “Of course.”
Navarro “should have kept his big mouth shut because I don’t think that helps us in foreign policy. And frankly, I think that’s out of line,” Hatch said, adding that Trump’s visit to Quebec for the G-7 meeting “could have been handled a lot better.”
“What was it that [Trudeau] did that was so offensive that it required that type of a comment?” asked Sen. Mike Rounds (R-S.D.). “This was very disconcerting. And I do not like to see that type of language being used without having a real strong basis for it.”
Rounds added that he’d like “to know the rest of the story,” insisting there must be some other justification for the administration’s reaction because he’d heard similar rhetoric from Trudeau in the past. After Trump left the summit early, Trudeau told reporters that Canada “will not be pushed around” and said it was “kind of insulting” that Trump was applying tariffs on Canada using national security as a justification.
Trump promptly removed the United States from a joint communique and blasted Trudeau for dairy tariffs, while Navarro and economic adviser Larry Kudlow took to the airwaves to attack Trudeau for, as Kudlow put it, having “stabbed us in the back.”
“I’m concerned because Canada has been a reliable ally, a close friend, and one of our biggest trading partners. Now, those of us from Maine are very aware that there have been frictions,” said Sen. Susan Collins (R-Maine), who said her state is in disputes with Canada over lobsters and other goods. “Those issues deserve attention, but we don’t need to alienate Canada in the process.”
Trump knows Republicans are uneasy with his current strategy, so much so that the president called Pennsylvania Sen. Pat Toomey on Sunday night from Singapore for a “long” discussion about their disagreement on trade policy.
The conservative Pennsylvanian said the president told him: “These 232 tariffs that you don’t like, Pat, this is how I get leverage over Canada. This is why I need that.” But Toomey has not come around to Trump’s position, telling WAEB-AM on Monday, “what [Trump really wants, I’m afraid, is to kill NAFTA.”
Whether the GOP-led Senate is actually willing to do something about it rather than pay lip service to opposing Trump is another matter entirely. Republicans are trying to slow down the Trump administration’s deal-making with Chinese telecom giant ZTE, but Sen. Bob Corker (R-Tenn.) is pressing for a far more confrontational vote on an amendment to the must-pass defense bill that would allow Congress to block Trump’s tariffs.
“I would think that more people would be inclined . to support an amendment like this,” Corker said after the weekend’s events.
He’s won support from free-traders like Toomey and some Democrats. But GOP leaders are not on board.
Essentially, they argue, Toomey and Corker are correct on the policy but wrong on the politics – that five months before the midterms is not the time to pick a fight with the president of your own party.
“I don’t think it’s a big deal,” Senate Majority Whip John Cornyn (R-Texas) said of the rift with Canada. As for Corker’s bill, Cornyn said: “I don’t think having that fight right now is necessary.”
Cornyn added that Navarro should get a “stern talking to,” but that the G-7 leaders are “big boys and girls” and can defend themselves. And not all senators disagree with Trump on the substance even if almost all Republicans chastised his administration on style.
Sen. Joni Ernst (R-Iowa) said Navarro’s swipe was not language she would have used but said there was something to Trump’s trade offensive against Canada.
“It’s Trump pushing back against a country that has not been very fair to us,” Ernst said. “As we have worked through NAFTA, Canada has not been helpful to us. . They are not very fair to American farmers and ranchers.”
Other Republicans were more worried.
“Of course I am concerned,” said Sen. Rob Portman (R-Ohio). “We need to calm the waters.”
“I am pretty sure that circles of hell are not reserved for Canadians imposing retaliatory tariffs,” Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Texas) told reporters. He also emphasized that the focus should be on the substance of the administration’s trade policy rather than any rhetorical back-and-forth.
The Trump administration has tried to project the spat with Canada as important in the run-up to Trump’s negotiating session with North Korean leader Kim Jong Un. Kudlow said Sunday: “Kim must not see American weakness.”
But Sen. Chris Coons (D-Del.) said that is a misguided notion.
“Showing a willingness to exchange blows verbally with one of our most reliable, closest allies shows an impetuousness and a thin-skinned inability to focus on the real goal,” Coons said. “My hope is that several Republican colleagues will step forward and say we are a separate branch.”
Republicans leaders weren’t explicitly ruling out a vote on Corker’s amendment on Monday, but Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) warned last week that the Senate won’t pass anything that ties the president’s hands on trade.
McConnell’s office declined comment on Monday about the Trump administration’s feud with Canada.
Elana Schor and Liz Crampton contributed to this report.
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