David Frum
Credit: Courtesy of Informa

Political commentator David Frum (left) chats with Mark Renzoni, president and CEO of CBRE Canada

Frum thinks it’s unlikely that Donald Trump will kill or even make big changes to the trade deal

He coined the phrase Axis of Evil, and he doesn’t have anything much nicer to say about U.S. President Donald Trump. At real estate brokerage CBRE Ltd.’s Canadian Market Outlook breakfast in Vancouver on November 1, keynote speaker David Frum highlighted potential risks to Canadian business from the Trump administration’s policies—or lack thereof. Frum, a senior editor at The Atlantic and a one-time speechwriter for former president George W. Bush, began by sharing his views on how the White House is coping in the wake of recent indictments connected to the FBI investigation into potential Russian interference in the 2016 presidential election.

“You will often hear, especially if you’re talking to people who are more insider-y or who have some connection to government...‘Yes, it looks like chaos, but underneath it, you can see the workings of a plan and the development of policy,’” the Toronto native said. “I just want to put your minds at ease: underneath the appearance of chaos is the reality of great chaos. And the indictments are hugely important to that chaos.”

In the U.S. system of government, the White House is meant to be the central coordinating mechanism, Frum explained. When the White House is broken and paralyzed, he said, government branches and agencies keep operating on their own.

“It’s like a machine with a broken brain, a monster marching out of control, proceeding in all kinds of directions and without any presiding intelligence,” Frum said. “There’s a lot of work being done inside the White House, focusing on the president’s plans for finally becoming the billionaire that he’s always told everybody he was, and staying out of prison. And each of those would be a full-time job. So to add to that the other elements of what you expect the presidency to do is simply too much. And the result is that there is no central control of the mechanism of government.”

All of this has big implications for the North American Free Trade Agreement, which Trump has been threatening to kill since he ran for president. Theoretically, he could cancel NAFTA on six months’ notice without consulting Congress, Frum noted. “But when there are a trillion dollars at stake, you discover there are a lot of people who are very interested in that trillion dollars, including crucial people in the president’s own party.” Frum cited Greg Abbott, the Republican governor of Texas, where some 400,000 jobs depend directly on NAFTA, he said.

“There are a lot of things that a president can do on paper that he can only do by setting fire to his own party,” Frum observed. “And when that president is in as much legal jeopardy as this president is, and when he needs his party to protect him from both the things he’s done and the even worse things that he may be driven to do in the future, he cannot afford to initiate that kind of revolution in his own party.”

When it comes to policy, Congress has the upper hand over the White House, Frum said. “That means that I think NAFTA is much safer than the conventional view has it.”

If Trump were going to do something as difficult as cancelling NAFTA, he should have done it during the first few months of his presidency, when his power was at its height, Frum said. “Every day you remain president, your power becomes weaker. I think it is very unlikely that we’re going to see significant changes.”

That includes a NAFTA renegotiation. “This may be the least talented [U.S.] administration since World War II,” Frum said. There are some smart people in Trump’s cabinet, he conceded. “But at the low levels, it is just a desert. Where the jobs are filled—and even now, many jobs remain unfilled—they’re filled by lobbyists, they’re filled by people without a lot of respect in the world, and that is especially true for the trade negotiators of this administration.”

Given that the U.S. has yet to make a coherent set of demands, Frum thinks Canadian and Mexican negotiators have pursued a successful strategy so far. Their approach, as he understands it: “‘Look, when you have a proposal, we will certainly consider it. We’re not just going to react to every noise you make. Tell us what you want, and then we will react.’ And the simple act of telling you what they want causes [the Americans] to freeze up. They can’t deliver that.”