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The Facts About ‘NAFTA-Gate’

What the Obama camp said to Canada, and the voters.


Summary

Clinton’s spokesman says a newly surfaced memo proves that Obama’s campaign issued false denials about sending a private message to Canadian officials to disregard his criticisms of NAFTA. The Obama camp says it’s all a misunderstanding, and the Canadian embassy in Washington says it regrets the whole thing.

Is this “NAFTA-gate” as the Clinton campaign would like Ohio voters to believe when they vote in the March 4 primary? Or is it, as the Obama camp describes it, just a botched description by a low-level official in Canada’s Chicago office of a meeting with a senior Obama adviser?

It’s now clear that a Canadian news report that started this flap wasn’t accurate. No evidence has surfaced to show that any Obama "staffer" telephoned the Canadian ambassador in Washington, and all concerned deny that any such conversation took place. But it is equally clear that Obama’s senior economic adviser did visit Canada’s consulate in Chicago on Feb. 8, and that NAFTA was one of the several topics discussed.

Exactly what was said is not so clear, however. The memo says Obama’s anti-NAFTA stance was described as just "political maneuvering," but the adviser says he said no such thing. The campaign says the adviser wasn’t authorized to convey any message from the candidate anyway. No audio recording or verbatim transcript of the disputed conversation is available, and there’s no reason to expect that any exists. So the best we can do is to provide readers with the essential details as they have unfolded over the past several days, with links to original sources when available. On this one, you’ll have to be the judge.  

Analysis

Here is a day-by-day account of the dispute about the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA). Senators Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama have for weeks been twisting each others words, each portraying the other as favoring free trade while criticizing the trade deal in Ohio where it is unpopular. Each have nearly identical public positions, however.

Tuesday, Feb. 26: Debating in Cleveland, Ohio, both Clinton and Obama take identical stands on NAFTA. Both agree when pressed by NBC’s Tim Russert that they would threaten to pull the U.S. out of NAFTA unless Canada and Mexico agree to new terms:

Moderator Tim Russert: Will you, as president, say we are out of NAFTA in six months?

Clinton: I have said that I will renegotiate NAFTA, so obviously, you’d have to say to Canada and Mexico that that’s exactly what we’re going to do. . . . Yes, I am serious. . . . I will say we will opt out of NAFTA unless we renegotiate it, and we renegotiate on terms that are favorable to all of America. . . .

Q: Senator Obama . . .  Simple question: Will you, as president, say to Canada and Mexico, "This has not worked for us; we are out"?

Obama: I will make sure that we renegotiate, in the same way that Senator Clinton talked about. And I think actually Senator Clinton’s answer on this one is right. I think we should use the hammer of a potential opt-out as leverage to ensure that we actually get labor and environmental standards that are enforced. And that is not what has been happening so far.

Source: Transcript, "The Democratic Debate in Cleveland," New York Times 26 Feb 2008.

Wednesday, Feb. 27: The Canadian television network (CTV) runs a story headlined, "Obama staffer gave warning of NAFTA rhetoric." Quoting anonymous sources, it says a top Obama "staff member" telephoned Canada’s ambassador to the U.S. to warn that the candidate’s criticisms of NAFTA should not be taken seriously. Key excerpts: 

CTV, Feb. 27: Within the last month, a top staff member for Obama’s campaign telephoned Michael Wilson, Canada’s ambassador to the United States, and warned him that Obama would speak out against NAFTA, according to Canadian sources.
The staff member reassured Wilson that the criticisms would only be campaign rhetoric, and should not be taken at face value.

CTV also reported in the same story that the Clinton campaign may have done something similar:

CTV, Feb. 27: Low-level sources also suggested the Clinton campaign may have given a similar warning to Ottawa, but a Clinton spokesperson flatly denied the claim.

Source: "Obama staffer gave warning of NAFTA rhetoric," Canadian Television 27 Feb 2008.

Correction: Some of the dates in the section above were incomplete or erroneous in our original story. They have been corrected.


Thursday, Feb. 28:
The Canadian embassy in Washington calls the CTV story "untrue":

Canadian Embassy Statement: The Canadian Embassy confirms that at no time has any member of a Presidential campaign called the Canadian Ambassador or any official at the Embassy to discuss NAFTA. Last night the Canadian television network, CTV, falsely reported that such calls had been made. That story is untrue. Neither before nor since the Ohio debate has any Presidential campaign called Ambassador Wilson or the Embassy to raise NAFTA.

Source: Statement by the Canadian Embassy, 28 Feb. 2008.

Thursday, Feb. 28: Obama senior foreign policy adviser Susan Rice is asked on MSNBC’s "Tucker" about the report on CTV. Carlson’s question goes beyond the story’s specific allegation of a call to the Canadian ambassador. Rice’s answer is more specific to the CTV story:

Tucker Carlson: Was there any contact between anyone in the Obama campaign and anyone in the Canadian government about NAFTA?

Susan Rice: Well, the Canadian ambassador issued a statement saying that that story was absolutely false. There had been no such contact. There had been no discussions on NAFTA. So we take the Canadians (INAUDIBLE) at their word.

Carlson: Period.

Rice: Period. That`s what he said.

Source: "Tucker," MSNBC, 28 Feb. 2008. 

Friday, Feb. 29: Obama spokesman Bill Burton issues a blanket denial of contact between "any level" of the Obama campaign and the Canadian government regarding NAFTA:

Burton: There was no one at any level of our campaign, at any point, anywhere, who said or otherwise implied Obama was backing away from his consistent position on trade.

Source: Parker, Jennifer. "Clinton Campaign Demands Obama Answers on NAFTA," ABC News, 28 Feb. 2008. 

 Friday, Feb. 29: Interviewed about the CTV story on a Cleveland television station, Obama says it’s not true:

Obama: Our office has said the story was not true. And so I think it’s important for viewers to understand that it was not true.

WKYC Anchor: So, completely inaccurate, did not happen, end of discussion?

Obama: It did not happen.

Source: Interview with Barack Obama, WKYC, 29 Feb. 2008.

Friday, Feb. 29: CTV cites "reports" that a NAFTA discussion may have occurred in Chicago, not Washington. It also reports that it included Austan Goolsbee, an economics professor at the University of Chicago and the senior economic adviser to the Obama campaign.

CTV: [The] Obama camp did not respond to repeated questions from CTV on reports that a conversation on this matter was held between Obama’s senior economic adviser — Austan Goolsbee — and the Canadian Consulate General in Chicago.

Earlier Thursday, the Obama campaign insisted that no conversations have taken place with any of its senior ranks and representatives of the Canadian government on the NAFTA issue. On Thursday night, CTV spoke with Goolsbee, but he refused to say whether he had such a conversation with the Canadian government office in Chicago. He also said he has been told to direct any questions to the campaign headquarters.

Source: "Obama campaign mum on NAFTA contact with Canada," 29 Feb. 2008.

Friday, Feb. 29: The Clinton campaign again denied the CTV report from "low-level sources" indicating that her representatives might have had similar contact with the Canadian government. Phil Singer, a campaign spokesperson, said the campaign was offering "blanket immunity" to Canadian officials who could provide names of any initiators or recipients of such contacts.

Source: Gorham, Beth. "Liberals accuse Tories of undermining Obama with leak on NAFTA talks," The Canadian Press, 29 Feb. 2008.

Monday, March 3: The Associated Press reports that a Canadian government memo describes Goolsbee as telling officials of the consulate in Chicago on Feb. 8 that much of Obama’s rhetoric on trade may seem protectionist but "is more reflective of political maneuvering than policy." The AP also quotes Goolsbee as saying the memo misquotes him: "I certainly did not use that phrase in any way."

The AP said that the memo "was widely distributed within the Canadian government" and describes an "introductory" meeting with Canada’s consul general in Chicago, Georges Rioux. It was written by Joseph DeMora, a consulate official who also attended. According to The AP, DeMora wrote 1,300 words describing many topics covered, including this about NAFTA:

DeMora memo: [Goolsbee] was frank in saying that the primary campaign has been necessarily domestically focused, particularly in the Midwest, and that much of the rhetoric that may be perceived to be protectionist is more reflective of political maneuvering than policy. On NAFTA, Goolsbee suggested that Obama is less about fundamentally changing the agreement and more in favour of strengthening/clarifying language on labour mobility and environment and trying to establish these as more `core’ principles of the agreement.

. . . Noting anxiety among many U.S. domestic audiences about the U.S. economic outlook, Goolsbee candidly acknowledged the protectionist sentiment that has emerged, particularly in the Midwest, during the primary campaign. . . . [He] cautioned that this messaging should not be taken out of context and should be viewed as more about political positioning than a clear articulation of policy plans.

Update March 4: The AP released more complete excerpts of the memo here.

The AP also quoted Goolsbee as saying that this portrayal is "a pretty ham-handed description of what I answered" and "completely crazy":

Goolsbee: This thing about "it’s more about political positioning than a clear articulation of policy plans," that’s this guy’s [DeMora’s] language. . . . He’s not quoting me. . . . I certainly did not use that phrase in any way. . . .  In no possible way was I inferring that he [Obama] was going to introduce any policies that you should ignore and he had no intention of enacting.

Goolsbee also said, according to the AP, that the sentence in the memo referring to Obama as favoring strengthening or clarifying NAFTA’s terms on labor and environment are true as well as consistent with Obama’s position.

The news agency quoted Goolsbee as saying the meeting took place at the invitation of the Canadians, and lasted about 40 minutes including perhaps two to three minutes discussing NAFTA. It quoted Obama spokesman Bill Burton as saying that Goolsbee was not representing the campaign during the visit and was not authorized to share any messages from the campaign.

Source: Nedra Pickler, "Obama Adviser Denies Trade Remarks," The Associated Press. 3 March 2008.

The Associated Press, "Excerpts of Canadian Memo" 3 March 2008.

Monday, March 3: The Clinton campaign issues a press release headlined "NAFTA-Gate: False Denials from the Obama Campaign," which lists various statements made by Obama or his campaign staff denying the CTV story or, more broadly, any such contact between anyone from his campaign and Canadian officials. In a conference call with reporters, Clinton spokesman Howard Wolfson says that "the Obama campaign conveyed to the people of Ohio one thing about NAFTA, and conveyed another thing to the Canadian government."

Sources: Clinton campaign conference call with reporters, 3 March 2008.

Hillary for President press release, "NAFTA-Gate: False Denials from the Obama Campaign," 3 March 2008.

Monday, March 3: The Canadian embassy in Washington says it "deeply regrets" the affair, and that "there was no intention to convey, in any way" that Obama was being inconsistent about NAFTA:

Statement by the Canadian Embassy: The Canadian Embassy and our Consulates General regularly contact those involved in all of the Presidential campaigns and, periodically, report on these contacts to interested officials. In the recent report produced by the Consulate General in Chicago, there was no intention to convey, in any way, that Senator Obama and his campaign team were taking a different position in public from views expressed in private, including about NAFTA. We deeply regret any inference that may have been drawn to that effect.

The people of the United States are in the process of choosing a new President and are fortunate to have strong and impressive candidates from both political parties. Canada will not interfere in this electoral process. We look forward, however, to working with the choice of the American people in further building an unparalleled relationship with a close friend and partner.

Source: Statement by the Canadian Embassy, 3 March 2008.

Update, March 4: The following material was added after our original story appeared:

Monday, March 3: The affair causes a row in the Canadian Parliament. Jack Layton, the head of Canada’s New Democratic Party, accused Prime Minister Stephen Harper’s Conservative Party government of "interfering in the U.S. Democratic primaries with false accusations trying to silence Barack Obama who simply wants to amend the NAFTA." The Obama camp posts a video of the speech, originally broadcast by MSNBC, on its YouTube page.

Source: Obama’08 "The Canadian Parliament asks PM Stephen Harper Questions," YouTube video 3 March 2008. 

Update, March 7: The following material was added after our original story appeared:

Wednesday, March 5: The Canadian Press news agency reports that the whole controversy originated with a remark to several journalists by the prime minister’s chief of staff, Ian Brodie. He allegedly said that a representative of the Clinton campaign had called the Canadian embassy in D.C. to say her anti-NAFTA comments shouldn’t be taken at face value.

The Canadian Press: "Quite a few people heard it," said one source in the room. "He said someone from (Hillary) Clinton’s campaign is telling the embassy to take it with a grain of salt. … That someone called us and told us not to worry."

No details of the alleged Clinton contact were given, and while the anonymous source said several people heard the comment, no one else was quoted in the story.

Earlier, Canadian Prime Minister Harper announced that he had asked an internal security team to begin finding the source of the leaked memo mentioning Goolsbee’s visit.

Source: Alexander Panetta, "‘NAFTAgate’ began with remark from Harper’s chief of staff," The Canadian Press 5 March 2008.
 
Thursday, March 6:
The Canadian Press quotes Brodie saying he doesn’t recall specifically mentioning Clinton or Obama to reporters.

The Canadian Press: Brodie says he doesn’t recall specifically mentioning Clinton or Obama, but he has not denied the rest of the conversation.

Harper’s press secretary, Sandra Buckler, tells The New York Times:

Press Secretary Buckler: Ian Brodie is alleged to have made an offhand comment about a rumor to a reporter. He does not recall saying it.

Meanwhile, Harper tells the House of Commons that the investigation will cover persons in the prime minister’s own office, though he does not mention Brodie by name.

Prime Minister Harper: We’re going to investigate this entire matter and take whatever action is deemed to be necessary based on the facts that we are able to discover.

Source: Alexander Panetta, "Harper widens NAFTA-gate probe to include his own office" The Canadian Press 6 March 2008.

Ian Austin, "Trade Pact Controversy in Democratic Race Reaches Into Canadian Parliament," New York Times 7 March 2008.

— by Brooks Jackson and Viveca Novak

Sources

Transcript, "The Democratic Debate in Cleveland" New York Times 26 Feb 2008.

"Obama staffer gave warning of NAFTA rhetoric," Canadian Television 28 Feb 2008.

Statement by the Canadian Embassy, 28 Feb 2008.

"Obama campaign mum on NAFTA contact with Canada" 29 Feb 2008.

Nedra Pickler, "Obama Adviser Denies Trade Remarks," The Associated Press 3 March 2008.

The Associated Press, "Excerpts of Canadian Memo" 3 March 2008.

Source: Statement by the Canadian Embassy 3 March 2008.

"Tucker," MSNBC, 28 Feb. 2008.

Parker, Jennifer. "Clinton Campaign Demands Obama Answers on NAFTA," ABC News, 28 Feb. 2008.

Interview with Barack Obama, WKYC, 29 Feb. 2008.

Gorham, Beth. "Liberals accuse Tories of undermining Obama with leak on NAFTA talks," The Canadian Press, 29 Feb. 2008.

Sources: Clinton campaign conference call with reporters, 3 March 2008.

Hillary for President press release, "NAFTA-Gate: False Denials from the Obama Campaign," 3 March 2008.

Obama’08 "The Canadian Parliament asks PM Stephen Harper Questions," YouTube video 3 March 2008.