There’s no question that the first full week of June yielded a bumper crop of alternative facts out of the Trump administration, from protesting the Philadelphia Eagles for disrespecting the military, which they absolutely did not do (not pre-game, not in the locker room, nada), to President Donald Trump’s congratulatory visit to FEMA telling them he was “very proud” of their work during the hurricane season while failing to mention the death toll in Puerto Rico is now estimated at north of 4,600. There was even more presidential tweeting about a certain “political witch hunt” (an oldie but a goodie) being the biggest ever, which continues to be an odd way of describing the work of special counsel Robert S. Mueller III who has already brought charges against 19, secured plea agreements from three, gotten a guilty plea and put one person in jail. And that’s not even counting Paul Manafort, the former Trump campaign manager, who may soon be headed to trial.
But this week’s winner is frankly bizarre. On Wednesday, it was reported that during a May 25 call with Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau to discuss trade tariffs, President Trump remarked, “Didn’t you guys burn down the White House?” It was likely meant as a joke, of course, but if so, he should have told it to Prime Minister Theresa May because it was the British who famously torched the White House in the War of 1812, not the Canadians. Canada was that place the Americans attempted to invade (for the second time, by the way, as our troops made a little excursion there during the Revolutionary War, too).
There are any number of things to unpack here, and the first is, let’s not rewrite this episode of history because Baltimore is way too invested in the War of 1812 to jeopardize the tourist trade. Fort McHenry. Francis Scott Key. “The Star-Spangled Banner?” Remember? Heck, if President Trump is going to suggest taking a knee while the anthem is played before a football game is disrespectful, isn’t it worse to misrepresent the events that gave us that particular song? Once again, the War of 1812 remains the Rodney Dangerfield of U.S. wars: “James Madison’s War” gets no respect.
Second, there are so many better things to mock Mr. Trudeau about than his country not burning the White House. How about for dressing like a Bollywood extra on a recent visit to India? Or for once telling a woman to use the term, “peoplekind” instead of mankind (not long after his country’s national anthem was gender neutralized)? Or how about just for representing a country where milk is sold in bags instead of cartons or jugs? Now, that’s some good-natured ribbing, eh?
The move is almost certain to be met with retaliatory measures from other nations, risking a trade war
No, what really makes the whole thing rise to the cream of the alternative fact crop is that the attempted zinger was made in context of what may be the dumbest excuse for a trade war in recent memory. The Trump administration has imposed tariffs on Canadian steel and aluminum (along with that from Mexico and Europe) on the grounds of national security. The claim is not simply that U.S. production has been diminished by foreign competition (which is true) or that the economy has been dangerously weakened (quite a leap), but that Canada is so unreliable an ally that Canadian steel or aluminum might not be made available to U.S. defense contractors in a time of emergency. (Well, that’s just silly). The Canadians have been a pretty darn reliable ally these last 205 years or so since the Treaty of Ghent.
Small wonder Mr. Trudeau has taken umbrage at his country being classified as some kind of national security threat. He knows it’s not. President Trump knows it’s not. It’s just an excuse to impose tariffs under executive authority that doesn’t require going through Congress or running afoul of World Trade Organization rules. The president is boosting the steel industry in the same way he’s been boosting coal — because it’s important to his political base, especially in some swing states. National security has nothing to do with it. But when the stated explanation diverges this far from reality, it’s also an alternative fact. Nothing personal, Canada. It’s just how your southern neighbor rolls in the Trump era.