OTTAWA – Earlier this month, former prime minister Stephen Harper made a damning allegation about the Trudeau government’s NAFTA negotiations: They are resisting making a deal to score partisan advantage by standing up to an unpopular U.S. president.
"The reality is that the Government of Canada believes today that it is doing very well, the fight with Trump is good for it politically, it is winning," Harper says in an audio recording obtained by CTV News.
"So if it can take that fight and continue it, and more importantly paint conservatives as linked to Donald Trump, this is great for them. And so right now that is the strategy they are on," Harper said in the recording of his remarks at a private luncheon hosted by the Australia-Canada Economic Leadership Forum in Montreal on July 11.
At the event, Harper also took aim at the Liberal PMO, alleging it leaked his planned trip to D.C. to the media; and offered new details on what he was doing in Washington.
On NAFTA, Harper called it "foolish" for either side to avoid making a deal for political reasons, something he said he thinks both Canada and the U.S. are guilty of doing.
During his recorded remarks, Harper also highlighted the negative state of relations between the two countries, and acknowledged the challenge it would be to get a deal with Trump.
"But nevertheless we should want one," he said.
In a tweet about his appearance at the forum, Harper said he discussed "political disruption and geo-politics."
CTV News reached out to the Australia-Canada Economic Leadership Forum for additional details about the luncheon, but its representatives did not respond by deadline.
Trudeau's office is rejecting Harper's claim that it’s not trying to secure a renegotiated NAFTA, saying in a written statement there'd been an unprecedented effort to reach out to U.S. lawmakers on trade and that it is still working to renegotiate the major trade agreement.
Spokesperson Cameron Ahmad told CTV News in a statement that "Canadians know this non-partisan approach is in the best interests of the country. And many prominent Conservatives feel the same way."
Senior government officials also tell CTV News that they were shocked by Harper's July 11 remarks, and pointed to the sustained effort by cabinet ministers and Trudeau himself to reach out to U.S. lawmakers.
Other top Conservatives including James Moore, Rona Ambrose, and Brian Mulroney, have been working to advance the government's position on NAFTA.
Harper told the Montreal audience that he said he could be "very helpful to them," but the Trudeau government didn't want his help; rather they wanted to "use" him in another way.
The PMO has told CTV News that this is not the case, rejecting Harper's characterization.
CTV News has learned that in June, after the acrimonious G7 meetings, Trudeau contacted Harper by phone to talk about possible co-operation on the NAFTA file, around the time Harper appeared on FOX News to argue in favour of Canada's position.
That co-operation never materialized.
As CTV News first reported, PMO officials were taken by surprise when they learned about Harper's planned visit to the White House to meet with senior U.S. officials.
Harper did visit the White House on July 2 -- the day after Canada put in place retaliatory tariffs on imports of U.S. goods and American-made steel and aluminum.
PMO officials learned the meeting actually took place with Trump's top economic advisor Larry Kudlow through media reports and a photo of Harper leaving the West Wing.
In the audio recording, Harper gave a different version of events, blaming the PMO for leaking details of the visit before it was even confirmed.
"The government got wind of the meetings before they were confirmed, and the government put them out in the media, and then the government attacked me on a partisan basis, saying you know… alleging they’d been blindsided," Harper said.
The recording also provides new insight into what Harper was doing in Washington.
He told the Montreal audience that "some of these things,” like the trade issues, "obviously came up in Washington."
Harper also said he was there in “some client context.” Harper now runs a consulting firm, and said he had been wanting to set up meetings in D.C. “for some time.”
"While I was in Europe, those meetings started to come together, and look, it was when I was coming back, it was going to be July 2, if I didn't take the meetings then, I wouldn't be able to do them until the fall. So we decided to do it," Harper said.
It remains unclear which clients Harper may have been representing during those high-levels meetings in the U.S. capital.
This admission is an addition to his previously stated purpose for the trip: his work on behalf of the International Democrat Union—a global association of conservative parties—and an organization called Friends of Israel.
Harper posted pictures on Twitter of meetings with officials in Washington, including a meeting with Bob Paduchik, the co-chair of the Republican National Committee.
In a tweet at the time, Harper said the pair discussed "building a strong global association of conservative parties."
A spokeswoman for Harper's consulting firm tells CTV News that Harper was pleased to speak at the business luncheon but when asked about the details of the speech and his stated client work in Washington, she said Harper doesn't comment on "leaked reports" from off-the-record events.
With files from Evan Solomon, host of CTV's Question Period, and CTV News' Senior Political Correspondent Glen McGregor