PMO’s New Canada-U.S. Relations ‘War Room’ Unit Seen as ‘Smart,’ Considered Unprecedented

 

The PMO’s unprecedented new Canada-U.S. relations “war room” led by Brian Clow is being lauded by observers as a smart move, created to help coordinate the Trudeau government’s quick response and strategy to U.S. President Donald Trump’s unpredictable new administration.

“There’s not been a unit like this set up within the PMO to the best of my knowledge,” said Greg MacEachern, a senior vice-president at Environics Communications and former Liberal staffer. “Obviously, the prime minister wants to be keeping a very close eye on this. … It’s an unprecedented situation in the U.S. we’re watching.”

Along with pushing what he expects to be a “bit of a campaign in terms of dealing with U.S. decision-makers and influencers” by the Liberal government, Mr. MacEachern said one of Mr. Clow’s “big tasks” will be ensuring integrated outreach across government, so that any projects or talks already underway continue to be worked on.

Currently a three-member team, the recently set-up Canada-U.S. relations unit in the office of Prime Minister Justin Trudeau (Papineau, Que.) office has a director in Mr. Clow, who’s said to have a great eye for detail and strategy, and was formerly chief of staff to now Foreign Affairs Minister Chrystia Freeland (University-Rosedale, Ont.) in her previous role as International Trade minister.

As of last week, working under him are two former colleagues from Ms. Freeland’s International Trade team: adviser Simon Beauchemin and special assistant Diamond Isinger, both of whom worked as special assistants—for parliamentary affairs and operations, respectively—while in the Trade minister’s office.

“They’ve done exactly what they should do. They’ve set up a war room to deal with Donald Trump problems,” said Warren Kinsella, president of Daisy Group and a former Liberal staffer, adding that such units are focused on tracking issues and formulating responses.

Mr. Kinsella said Mr. Clow worked under him in former Ontario Liberal premier Dalton McGuinty’s 2007 and 2011 campaign war rooms, and he’s “one of the best war room guys around.”

“You get stuff breaking with this guy [Trump] all the time. He’s a monkey with a machine gun. You need people who are tracking what’s taking place in the United States now and responding,” said Mr. Kinsella.

“You’ve got the president of the United States coming up with policy at three o’clock in the morning on Twitter, so the traditional bureaucratic response … none of that works anymore. You need a war room to respond to this guy, and I think that’s what the Trudeau guys have wisely set up.”

Since his election in November, Mr. Trump has thrown question marks around Canada-U.S. relations, most notably calling to renegotiate the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA), talks for which he has indicated could include the issue of softwood lumber. On Feb. 2, he said he would like to start talks on NAFTA “very soon.” As highlighted in his inauguration speech and on the new White House website, the Trump administration is focused on an “America First” approach to foreign policy.

President Trump has been fast to act on changes since taking office on Jan. 20, having signed more than a dozen executive actions, including the controversial blocking of travel to the U.S. by citizens from seven Muslim-majority countries—Iran, Iraq, Libya, Syria, Sudan, Somalia, and Yemen. Reports indicate this order was made with essentially no notice or briefing given even to close U.S. allies, such as Canada and the U.K.

Shuffled into the Foreign Affairs portfolio on Jan. 10, Ms. Freeland has retained responsibility for the Canada-U.S. relations file, which includes trade relations. While former foreign affairs minister Stéphane Dion’s mandate letter tasked him to “improve relations” with the U.S., Ms. Freeland’s recently revamped ministerial mandate letter instructs her to “maintain constructive relations with the United States” with a “whole-of-government approach and strategy.”

At the same time as Mr. Clow was moved into the Mr. Trudeau’s office, former PMO deputy chief of staff and deputy principal secretary Jeremy Broadhurst—who ran the 2015 Liberal campaign and was the highest ranking political aide in the PMO after chief of staff Katie Telford and principal secretary Gerald Butts—was named chief of staff to Ms. Freeland at Foreign Affairs.

Mr. Clow and Mr. Broadhurst are expected to work closely in their new roles to ensure tight coordination between political staff in the PMO and Global Affairs Canada (which includes both Foreign Affairs and International Trade), reaching out to the rest of cabinet, the public service, other levels of government, and relevant groups as the need arises.

In addition to Ms. Telford and Mr. Butts, Mr. Clow would likely be working closely with PMO director of policy Michael McNair, among others.

“There’s going to be people at the senior level that will [also] be playing a role [on Canada-U.S. issues], no doubt, but the indications are that Clow will be the key person on the file,” said Mr. MacEachern.

“When you have a winning campaign in the U.S. that was so focused around jobs and trade, obviously this is going to be a high priority. The other thing is that Clow is said to have had a really strong working relationship with Minister Freeland,” he said.

Rachel Curran, former director of policy to Conservative prime minister Stephen Harper and now a senior associate at Harper & Associates, said the PMO’s new Canada-U.S. relations unit “is a really good idea.”

“Our relationship with the U.S.—I think, in light of Trump’s election and his focus on trade, and in particular NAFTA—is going to be the single most important issue, at least for this year and probably longer,” said Ms. Curran. “The fact that they’ve established almost like a political tiger team within the office I think is a really smart idea.”

While relationships always are created and exist between offices and other governments, “it’s not as common to establish a formal team,” she said, and “it’s an indication of how important they see the issue, and they’re right about that.”

The Canadian government and senior staffers have been working to establish and feel out relationships with the new U.S. administration since Mr. Trump was elected last fall. It has turned to former prime minister Brian Mulroney and his former chief of staff Derek Burney for help.

“It’s those relationships that are going to be important, so there’s almost a period of figuring that out, figuring out where the strongest relationships are going to happen and who’s going to have a good bond with somebody else from a different administration,” said Ms. Curran.

“It sounds like the Trudeau PMO is taking a more rigorous and I think a more formal approach to establishing that team vis-à-vis the U.S.”

In an email response to The Hill Times, Mr. Burney said he “did not have a team dedicated to the U.S.” as chief of staff in Mr. Mulroney’s PMO, and as Canadian ambassador to the U.S. during the culmination of free trade negotiations, he personally dealt primarily with then Secretary of Treasury James Baker.

Along with relationships between bureaucrats, relationships at the political level are “really critical,” and “matter” when things like trade negotiations are on the table, said Ms. Curran. This includes relations between cabinet members and relations between the president and prime minister, she said.

“It’s important to, I think, set this up early and make sure they’re well established, and it sounds like they’re doing that,” she said.

Mr. MacEachern, whose firm has a number of clients operating on both sides of the Canada-U.S. border, said he’s expecting the Trudeau government to embark on an “integrated communications and government relations campaign” in the U.S. in the coming months, with Mr. Clow and his team playing a coordinating role.

“What I would expect to see is cabinet ministers doing speeches at chambers of commerce, for example, in border States. … You’re going to see a Canadian presence there reminding these governments—whether they be state, local, federal—of the importance of the role that Canada has with that community,” said Mr. MacEachern.

“In the U.S., you’re basically running for office every day. It’s the permanent campaign, and we have midterm elections in two years, and this is a really key time to hit the message home to members of Congress from those key states,” he said.

Such a campaign would involve mapping out goals, strategies and timelines, as well as identifying key contacts and decision-makers to reach out to (and to do the reaching out), from those who have the “most to lose” to those with the most influence with the new administration.

Also focused on the Canada-U.S. file is former Canadian Forces lieutenant-general and now Liberal MP Andrew Leslie (Orléans, Ont.), who was shuffled out of his role as chief government whip last month to serve as parliamentary secretary to the Foreign Affairs minister, focused on Canada-U.S. relations. With contacts among senior U.S. generals from his military service, including in Afghanistan, Mr. Leslie is expected to help forge relationships with the new administration in Washington.

Mr. Clow left his role as a senior adviser to Ontario Liberal Premier Kathleen Wynne in November 2015 to work for the Liberal government as chief of staff to Ms. Freeland at Trade, and previously worked on the Hill for the Liberals during opposition years alongside other senior PMO staff. He was an issues manager for the Liberals during the 2015 federal election campaign.

Mr. Beauchemin, now an adviser for Canada-U.S. relations, was hired to Ms. Freeland’s international trade team around the same time in the fall of 2015, and is a former consultant with Hatley Strategy Advisers in Montreal.

Ms. Isinger, meanwhile, previously joined Ms. Freeland’s team in February 2016, bringing with her communications experience as a former social media coordinator for the B.C. Liberal Party and as a former director of online communications for George Abbott’s 2011 B.C. Liberal leadership campaign, among other experience.

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