The few vocal Trump critics in the Republican ranks in Congress spoke up against the U.S. President’s feud with Canada. Senator Jeff Flake asked the key question: Will the other Republicans who disagree with the President be willing to cross him?
There was, as Foreign Affairs Minister Chrystia Freeland met members of the Senate foreign relations committee in Washington, an unusual chorus of Canada-backers. Republicans and Democrats trooped out to oppose Mr. Trump’s tariffs on steel and aluminum and to criticize the President’s treatment of Canada.
But named one by one, it turns out they were habitual Trump detractors: Senator Robert Menendez, a New Jersey Democrat accustomed to opposing the President, and Senators Flake and Bob Corker, Mr. Trump’s two most vocal Republican critics – neither or whom, tellingly, is running for re-election.
What matters will be how much pressure Mr. Trump feels from his political allies – whether they can, or will, convince the President to get trade talks back on track.
That was the mission that sent Ms. Freeland to Washington. She’s there often now for NAFTA talks, but this trip was aimed at finding a way to get past the unprecedented feud that had the President calling Prime Minister Justin Trudeau “dishonest and weak.” Finance Minister Bill Morneau went, too, to meet Treasury Secretary Steve Mnuchin, a trade supporter in the Trump administration.
It helps Canada to have allies in the United States. And it’s fairly rare that any three senators of any description bother to speak up about Canada in any context. But Mr. Trump is most likely to be moved by his own allies.
Mr. Flake said most Republican senators think, like him, that Mr. Trump is misusing s. 232 of the Trade Expansion Act, which allows the president to apply tariffs on foreign goods on national security grounds. Mr. Corker has proposed a bill to rein in Mr. Trump’s power – trade is under the jurisdiction of Congress under the U.S. Constitution – but the Republican leadership doesn’t want it to go to a vote.
“I know that a majority of Republicans feel this way – agree with us on tariffs. Whether or not we can get a vote to the floor, that’s the question,” Mr. Flake said. “A lot of our colleagues don’t want to cross the President.”
There’s reason for them to fear. Mr. Trump’s approval ratings are sky high among Republican voters. Some Republican members of Congress have faced challenges in congressional primaries for not being supportive enough of Mr. Trump. South Carolina Representative Mark Sanford, a Trump critic, was defeated in a primary Tuesday. Those two vocal Republican critics, Mr. Flake and Mr. Corker, aren’t running for re-election.
Mr. Corker’s bill to rein in use of s. 232 tariffs is an inside-baseball matter on Capitol Hill, but the sentiment behind it might move senators to press Mr. Trump, at least in private – not just that the President is messing with trade, but that he’s picking a strange Canadian target.
“I don’t know of any senator that hasn’t expressed concern about what has happened, and just sort of the random nature of what’s happened,” Mr. Corker told reporters. A few other Republicans have publicly expressed more gentle concern with Mr. Trump’s recent Canada fixation, such as Utah Senator Orrin Hatch, South Dakota Senator Mike Rounds, and Maine Senator Susan Collins.
Some inside the Canadian government don’t see Mr. Trump’s feud with Canada as being completely random; they see it as tactics in NAFTA negotiations. Whether Mr. Trump’s weekend blasts at Mr. Trudeau, and his aides’ follow-up on Sunday TV, were purely motivated by anger or by pressure tactics is up for debate, but there’s no doubt Mr. Trump has sought to apply public pressure on Canada and Mexico to make concessions in trade talks. And Pennsylvania Republican Senator Pat Toomey told a local radio station that Mr. Trump called him from Singapore on Sunday to tell him he needed to keep the tariffs on Canada to apply leverage in NAFTA talks, according to Politico. The question is whether Republicans are willing to tell their own President the leverage tactics have gone too far.