WHITE HOUSE —
President Donald Trump and Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross on Tuesday said they did not fear a trade war with Canada after American punitive action on lumber and milk.
"They have a tremendous surplus with the United States," Trump said, adding "people don't realize Canada's been very rough on the United States. ... They've outsmarted our politicians for many years."
Trump added that he wanted "a very big tax" on Canadian lumber and timber.
He made the comments at a meeting with American farmers where he signed an executive order aimed at helping agriculture and rural areas.
Trump also talked to Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau Tuesday. Trudeau "refuted the baseless allegations by the U.S. Department of Commerce and the decision to impose unfair duties," according to a summary of the call released by Trudeau's office.
"The prime minister stressed that the government of Canada will vigorously defend the interests of the Canadian softwood industry, as we have successfully done in all past lumber disputes with the U.S.," the statement said.
The White House later issued its own brief, three-sentence readout of the call, which it called "very amicable."
The Canadian dollar fell to a 14-month low against the greenback after the United States imposed preliminary tariffs averaging 20 percent — more than $1 billion of countervailing duties — on imported Canadian softwood.
Earlier in the day, Trump vowed moves to protect the American dairy industry.
On Tuesday morning, he tweeted: "Canada has made business for our dairy farmers in Wisconsin and other border states very difficult. We will not stand for this. Watch!"
Trump, since his time campaigning for the presidency, has voiced his strong displeasure with the 1994 North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA), but until now he has vented most of his ire southward, toward Mexico.
Ross, speaking to reporters on the White House podium, would not explicitly characterize the actions on lumber and dairy as the opening shots on renegotiating NAFTA, but he did say: "Everything relates to everything else when you're trying to negotiate."
He described Canada as "generally a good neighbor," asserting that its allegedly unfair trade practices regarding lumber and dairy were not very neighborly.
Asked on Tuesday in Kitchener, Ontario, about the U.S. trade actions and the fate of NAFTA, Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau replied, "Standing up for Canada is my job, whether it's softwood or software."
Trudeau added, "Any two countries are going to have issues that will be irritants to the relationship and, quite frankly, having a good, constructive, working relationship allows us to work through those irritants."
Some other Canadians were less diplomatic in their reactions.
"In Canada, the perception is that we're always very nice," said Unifor President Jerry Dias, representing forestry workers across the country. "But we can't get trampled by this guy [Trump]."
'Ignore, do not engage'
The majority of Canadians, including the prime minister and his colleagues, "understand that President Trump is prone to making ill-informed, off-the-cuff and arbitrary comments about a host of domestic and foreign policy issues," Donald Abelson, the chairman of the political science department at the University of Western Ontario in London, told VOA.
"Canada will likely respond to Trump's Tuesday tweet in a manner similar to how a competent parent responds to a child's temper tantrum — ignore, do not engage," added Abelson, who is also director of the school's Canada-U.S. Institute.
Other Canadians displayed wry humor — a traditional reaction to irritations from south of the border (at least since the last U.S. invasion during the War of 1812), considering the asymmetry of power.
The president's messages prompted immediate puns on Canadian social media, with tweets referencing "sacred cows" and calling the American trade action on dairy "udderly stupid" and "cheesy," Sparkle Hayter, veteran Canadian journalist and author, told VOA.
The dairy dispute goes back decades. Currently, there is an overproduction of milk, according to dairy farmers on both sides of the border.
The U.S.-Canada lumber squabble is rooted in a couple of centuries of history.
In response to the proposed tariff on softwood lumber, "Canada to strike back by charging duties on exported Cdn actors," tweeted the account of 22 Minutes, a satirical news program on national public broadcaster CBC.
Cows are No. 1
The Twitter account also noted the U.S. president "tweeted about Canadian dairy industry first thing this morning, so on his list of priorities: 1. Canadian Cows. 2. North Korea."
Trump's attention on Canada comes amid indications he is pivoting away — at least temporarily — from the southern border and his quest to quickly fund his border wall with Mexico.
"We have plenty of time" to complete the wall during his first term, Trump assured reporters Tuesday afternoon.
The presidential desire for border protection might find a better reception to the north, considering the comments from some Canadians.
"Some [in Canada] would like to separate from the U.S., like literally," by digging a two-mile moat at the border "and filling it with beavers and mosquitoes," quipped Hayter from her home province of Alberta.
But many Canadians see themselves confronting a cross-border creature bigger than a beaver.
"Sleeping with an elephant" is how the late Pierre Trudeau, the current Canadian prime minister's father, once characterized relations with the United States, "affected by every twitch and grunt."