Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau says US tariffs weren't the reason he was willing to agree to a new trade deal earlier this year-- dismissing President Donald Trump's argument that the duties on Canadian goods forced his hand.
"On the contrary, we have been open from the very beginning to negotiate a new and modernized NAFTA," Trudeau said Monday in a wide-ranging, exclusive interview with CNN's Poppy Harlow.
"We were always willing to come to the table, to sit down and negotiate. And we have," he said.
Trump claimed in October that he was able to renegotiate the North American Free Trade Agreement with Canada and Mexico thanks to his hard-nosed tactics, including a willingness to impose new tariffs.
"Without tariffs, we wouldn't be talking about a deal," Trump said. He then mocked politicians opposed to tariffs as "babies."
Trump imposed tariffs earlier this year on steel and aluminum imports coming from around the world, including from allies like Canada and Mexico. He also threatened to impose new tariffs on autos, and has levied taxes on $250 billion of Chinese goods as his administration continues to talk with China about a new bilateral trade deal.
Trump and Trudeau have had a rocky relationship over trade. In June, the 46-year-old Canadian prime minister said after hosting the G7 summit in Quebec that he would be willing to retaliate over the metal tariffs -- which he then did. "Canadians, we're polite, we're reasonable, but we also will not be pushed around," Trudeau said.
His comments drew immediate fire from top Trump economic adviser Larry Kudlow, who told CNN at the time that Trudeau "kind of stabbed us in the back."
But in his interview Monday, on the eve of the US midterm elections, Trudeau stepped carefully around questions about his relationship with Trump, who personally called him "dishonest and weak" in a tweet over the retaliatory tariffs.
Both Canada and Mexico have responded to Trump's tariffs by levying taxes on US goods including yogurt, cheese, pork, maple syrup and bourbon.
"In politics, you get called a lot of things by a lot of different people," Trudeau said Monday, when asked directly about Trump's personal attacks.
He added: "I have a good, constructive working relationship with the President, which is what Canadians expect me to have. But the connections between Canada and the US run so deep and so broad that the relationship is going to be fine regardless of who's at the top on either side."
Trump's tariffs on steel and aluminum and Canada's and Mexico's retaliatory tariffs remain in place. A Mexican official has suggested they won't sign the new agreement until Trump lifts the duties. All three parties are due to sign it at the end of November, before a new Mexican president comes into office.
Trudeau said he wouldn't yet back out of the NAFTA replacement, which Trump has called the US-Canada-Mexico Agreement, or USCMA.
"We're not at the point of saying that we wouldn't sign if it wasn't lifted -- although we're trying to make that case," Trudeau said. He added: "We would much rather have genuine free trade with the United States so we're gonna continue to work, as soon as we can, to lift those tariffs."
In his conversation with Harlow, Trudeau repeatedly underscored his political and philosophical differences with Trump.
Harlow asked Trudeau about his father, former Canadian Prime Minister Pierre Trudeau, teaching him to trust people and followed up by asking if the Canadian leader trusts Trump. Trudeau sidestepped the question.
"What my father taught me was to trust Canadians," Trudeau said. "It was a way of looking at the electorate, of saying, you don't have to dumb it down for them, you don't have to scare them into this and that, you can actually treat people like intelligent, rational actors and they will rise to the occasion," Trudeau said.
Asked about the importance of a free press, which Trump often calls "the enemy of the people," Trudeau said "I have been unequivocal, repeatedly, that a free press is fundamental to any democracy around the world, any free society. You have to have an informed populace ... and politicians [who] are being held to account from media."
And as the US charges toward the finish line of a divisive and often ugly midterm election marked by attempted political violence and nakedly racist ads promoted by a President who emphasized themes of fear, Trudeau spoke of the importance of finding common ground.
"I think it's always been easier in politics to divide people or to scare people than to bring them together," Trudeau said. "I've chosen to try and bring people together, to try and look for those common grounds."
But he acknowledged that polarization is a problem in Canada, too.
"The polarization we see in Canada and around the world -- people who don't listen to each other anymore, people who are so sure that they are right that they won't listen to anyone who disagrees and won't -- will even dehumanize people who disagree with them," Trudeau told Harlow. "The demonization of political opponents is something that is fundamentally counter to the idea that diversity of opinions, of perspectives, of backgrounds, should be a source of strength and resilience."