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Don Martin: The 21 seconds of silence that said everything about Canada's reaction to Trump
OTTAWA -- Watching Justin Trudeau’s daily COVID-19 briefings lately is to believe the time has come to shelve the ritual as being well beyond its best-before date.
When billions in emergency program spending were rolling out and course corrections were a regular feature of these media encounters, it made sense for the prime minister to personally face a nervous nation.
Recently, though, it’s more about rehashing the government agenda and taking credit, deserving or otherwise, for pandemic responses. In other words, it is no longer must-see TV.
Then came Tuesday’s 21 seconds of silence.
Trudeau was asked for his reaction to U.S. President Donald Trump’s threat to use the military to suppress George Floyd protests while tear-gassing peaceful demonstrators near the White House so he could stage a Bible-holding photo-op outside a nearby church.
What made the question particularly daunting was the second part of reporter Tom Parry’s question: “If you don’t want to comment, what message do you think you are sending?”
Trudeau stared at the camera - and said nothing. The sign language interpreter folded her hands. Not a bird chirp could be heard.
Finally, Trudeau sought verbal refuge in acknowledging everybody has challenges with systemic discrimination, including Canada.
Now, there are only two ways to explain how a prime minister was caught flat-footed when asked for reaction to Trump's behaviour that has outraged the United States and is reverberating around the world.
Either his spin doctors had a huge fail before the briefing by neglecting to arm Trudeau for a question that was obviously going to be asked.
Or some genius in his communications army suggested the best escape from a no-win predicament was for the boss to simply stand at the podium for an uncomfortably long time while appearing to struggle for the right words.
One of my friends figured the teleprompter had stopped working, leaving Trudeau tongue-tied for his rehearsed lines.
But, even though it often seems that way, there was no electronic babysitter ready to spoon-feed a script to the prime minister.
So we might never know how Trudeau came up with a perfect way to express his personal outrage without giving the president cause for a cross-border counterpunch.
But perfect it was.
No American president has ever seemed this foreign to the vast majority of Canadians, unleashing behaviour that defies comprehension with such deadly consequences.
Yet no president has shown the capacity to take politics so personally, reacting with a vengeful temper to real or perceived slights.
That gives Trump immunity from candid criticism by allies who know the economic cost for incurring his wrath isn’t worth the political benefit of saying the right thing.
Hitting the mute button is particularly challenging for Trudeau, a prime minister with the habit of being preachy about gender, visible minority and Indigenous rights to other nations while his government falters on taking action on its own.
Of course, deploying the sounds of silence against a disturbed president was a one-off, if it was indeed a deliberate communications strategy.
Trudeau can’t keep saying nothing when asked about a president who is just getting started on dividing his nation to conquer the electoral college.
But, for at least one day, Justin Trudeau managed to condemn without commentary, to convey disgust without decibels and to muffle any Trump backlash without saying a word.
That made Tuesday’s COVID-19 briefing something worth watching.