Trudeau could not have been signalling more clearly if he had brought navy crewmen with semaphore flags.
The photo wasn’t a small thing. It was a token of insider status. It was Justin Trudeau’s wristband.
On arriving at the White House on Monday for his first face-to-face meeting with Donald Trump, Justin Trudeau brought a gift, a framed print of a photo showing Pierre Elliott Trudeau and Donald Trump at a function in the Waldorf Astoria in 1981. The elder Trudeau was receiving the Family of Man Gold Medallion Award. Trump, then about 34 years old, was offering remarks at the podium. Both men were in tuxes.
Justin Trudeau’s first telephone conversation with Trump was last Nov. 9, the day after he amazed the world by winning the electoral college and the presidency. Trump mentioned that he had met Trudeau’s father back in the day and admired him. This was news to Justin Trudeau. But apparently detectives were put on the search, and photographic evidence was unearthed at Library and Archives Canada. Print, frame, Bob’s your uncle.
Now here’s why it matters: Donald Trump has spent his life dividing the world into people who deserve to get in and people who don’t.
That’s how he became the target, at 27, of a justice department lawsuit in 1973 that claimed he and his father refused to rent to black tenants. (The Trumps countersued; the eventual settlement included no admission of guilt.)
It’s what Trump seeks to do along the Mexican border. It’s why he keeps smacking his head against the courts and the U.S. Constitution as he seeks to close America’s borders to visa-holders from seven predominately Muslim countries.
It’s what he does with membership fees at Mara-Lago and other exclusive Trump clubs. It’s what he has taken great pleasure in doing as he selects members of his cabinet.
If Trump decides you’re not allowed in, you get nowhere with him. He mocks you on Twitter, makes policy just to spite you, summons the sputtering apparatus of the White House staff and the rickety machinery of government to shut you down, if any of them can manage the task.
But if he accepts you, you actually have some latitude with him. The most astonishing example so far is the way he let Gen. James Mattis do, once Mattis became his nominee as defence secretary, what nobody else had succeeded in doing: persuade Trump that torture is useless as an instrument of government policy.
Trump’s attitude is summarized in the lyrics, at first comic and then haunting, of Paul Simon’s recent single, “Wristband”: “Wristband, my man, you’ve got to have a wristband/ If you don’t have a wristband, my man, you don’t get through the door.”
Justin Trudeau decided early that he was better inside the door than out. Two pieces of political theatre yesterday were designed to get him in.
First, the photo. It shows that when Trump spins a random old yarn over the phone, Trudeau listens and acts. And it reminds Trump that two successive generations of Trudeaus have been the kind of people who could walk through the kind of door only Donald Trump can open. That’s what a wristband does.
Second, the round table on women entrepreneurs with Ivanka Trump.
The president has been in open conflict with the Nordstrom department-store chain for a week because Nordstrom dropped Ivanka Trump’s line of clothing and accessories. He has sent White House staffers out to plead her case, and castigate Nordstrom, on the news shows. In Canada, some are calling for a boycott of The Bay because the chain won’t drop Ivanka Trump’s merchandise.
And what does Trudeau do in the middle of all this? His office organizes an event with Ivanka Trump, sits with cabinet ministers and senior staff at a long table to hear her ideas, makes her the focus at midday of an international summit.
Trudeau could not have been signalling more clearly if he had brought navy crewmen with semaphore flags. Family is family. Trump’s is welcomed and accepted, in the middle of a storm, just as Trudeau’s father was accepted at some society shindig Trump attended a generation ago.
From this basis, miracles need not ensue and trouble is not banished. At their joint news conference, Trump seemed plainly bored by the bilateral issues the two had discussed, eager to change the subject to Mexicans or terrorism or Mike Flynn, his embattled national security adviser — who has his wristband, was welcomed inside the perimeter long ago, and whom Trump was therefore in a mood to defend.
Trudeau’s gamble is that by getting in close to Trump — closer than many Canadians on the centre and left want him to get — he’ll have voice and standing inside that weird bunker, for as long as Trump influences our two countries’ shared life.
By presenting Donald Trump with a print of this 1981 photo, Justin Trudeau signalled he has the secret handshake to enter the president’s ‘weird bunker, writes Paul Wells.