Candid and concerned: What former U.S. ambassador to Canada Bruce Heyman thinks of Trump, Trudeau staffers
On his first trip back to Canada since leaving his Ottawa post, Heyman sits down with OpenCanada, speaking openly on the “genius” of the Trudeau team and what worries him about the state of U.S. politics.
Bruce Heyman — the United States’ most recent ambassador to Canada — hasn’t had a summer off since he was 12. Before taking up residence in Ottawa’s Rockcliffe Park following his appointment by Barack Obama in 2014, he spent 33 straight years working at Goldman Sachs. After resigning from his Ottawa post in early January (“as requested” by the incoming Donald Trump administration), Heyman was very much looking forward to “a time of rest and restoration” back in his hometown of Chicago with his wife, Vicki.
But, after more than a month, Heyman has yet to unpack half his belongings.
“Everything has changed,” Heyman told OpenCanada late last week, during his first trip back to Canada since retiring from the U.S. State Department on Jan. 20. “The last four weeks have caused an outsized number of requests for me to speak and engage in ways that I did not fully anticipate.”
He is referring, of course, to the unpredictable first month of U.S. President Trump, whose unprecedented and controversial governing tactics are causing waves of uncertainty about the future, both within the U.S. and abroad.
Unshackled from the restraints of officialdom, Heyman is free to be more candid in his assessments of American politics, its effects on the U.S.-Canada relationship and how the Americans he has been speaking to back home feel.
“People are anxious about the path ahead, because of the uncertainty and the rapidity of these decisions that are coming out of Washington without much of a heads up. It’s affecting different segments of our society, whether you’re an immigrant, whether you’re a transsexual, whether you’re a minority, a business person — whoever you are,” he said.
“People are going to get more involved in the political process going forward because I think a lot of people are waking up and saying, ‘how did this happen?’”
For the moment, Heyman’s former ambassadorial seat in Ottawa remains empty (though Bloomberg News reported on Wednesday that Trump has chosen longtime Republican donor Kelly Knight Craft for the position.) Heyman speaks fondly of the country he called home for almost three years: “I tell people, I came to Canada liking Canada — I left Canada loving Canada. And we’ll be back quite a bit.”
In a sit-down interview in Toronto, Heyman discussed his impressions of Trump’s first few weeks in office, the “best in class” strategy behind the Trudeau government’s efforts to reach out to the new administration, and what it means for the world’s major capital cities when key ambassadorial appointments are left vacant — as they are now.
What are your thoughts on Trump’s first month in office?
I love my country, and there’s nothing I would want more in the whole wide world [than] for a president to be successful, regardless of party. I’ve never viewed myself really as a party guy — I supported Barack Obama because I met him, got to know him, and felt that he should be president.
But I’m concerned. I think the start has been not as good as it could be. I think the way [the Trump administration is] processing decisions right now — with a very small group of people within the West Wing, not consulting more broadly the people who have deep knowledge and skills throughout the U.S. government — is leading to bad outcomes. Had they done [an] appropriate vetting of their thoughts and ideas before running on all these executive orders, I think they would not be facing the kinds of problems that they’re facing right now, with legal challenges, or protests in the streets, or town hall meetings that are getting out of control.
What do you make of the Trudeau government’s approach to U.S.-Canada relations under Trump so far?
I think it’s laudable — best in class. I think other leaders around the world are looking to Trudeau and the government here to see how they created that path and maybe try to figure out ways to replicate that. I will say that the genius that exists for at least this political engagement is multifold, with Gerry [Butts] and Katie [Telford] and David MacNaughton and Chrystia [Freeland] and the group all working together very effectively and developing a strategic and tactical plan on engagement with the U.S.
And this isn’t new — remember there was a Cabinet committee created back when they first were voted into government that focuses on the U.S.-Canada relationship, and so they continued to evolve and adapt, based on the change of our government. I think they’ve done this as well as you can do given the uncertainties that I’ve described, that we’re creating in Washington out of the White House and the administration. I give high marks at this stage to the Trudeau government.
How important is it for Canadian officials to raise awareness of the intricacies of the U.S.-Canada relationship with their counterparts down south?
They’re doing a good job at that. I think, though, they need one other piece that isn’t happening as effectively yet, and that other piece is having an American voice advocating for Canada. That I have taken on personally, because I know the importance of that, but it’s not a one-man show. What I would encourage Canadians to do, with their counterparts in the U.S., in business, personal, professional, at every level, is to [raise awareness of the mutual benefits of the relationship].
I believe that there’s no more important country to the United States than Canada, for many reasons: trade and borders and our work protecting the world, our work together promoting democratic ideals, and all the other things that we do. But I think we need to have more of an American voice that will resonate well within the administration and in other places.
Many Canadians are waiting to see what a re-negotiation of the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) might look like — any insight on that front?
When the president said in the bilateral meeting that he was going to “tweak” NAFTA — well, one person’s “tweak” may be somebody else’s “complete remodel.” Until the commerce secretary is in place, until the [U.S. trade representative] is in place, and until the U.S. government has effectively built its strategy for how to deal with NAFTA, I think there’s still a great deal of uncertainty left in this one. And by the way, it is a three-party agreement, so to think that you’re going to be really challenging with one party and less challenging with another…I don’t know how that works.
Politically appointed U.S. ambassadors left their posts by Inauguration Day — what impact does the absence of replacements have?
About one-third of all the ambassadors are politically appointed, then you have career ambassadors, which are the other two-thirds, who built their career up through the State Department. They are highly capable individuals who have a reporting line that is very effective in the State Department.
The political ambassadors, in history and in practice, have a relationship into the White House. And for that one-third, which happen to be [appointed to] the G20-type countries, that’s an important role for each of those countries to have, because those countries [already] have with their own ambassadors in Washington, or with people that they interact with, effective relationships at the State Department. They want to make sure that they have a really good relationship in the White House.
So think of this now: one-third of all the ambassadorships, which happen to be the capitals — London, Berlin, Paris, Ottawa, Tokyo — are vacated. With all of this going on, and all of this uncertainty being created out of the West Wing, we have no ambassadors in place.
What we have is a chargé d'affaires — historically, the deputy to the ambassador. The deputy works for and has had a career in the State Department, [and will] effectively run the embassy and the consulates, but it’s a very different relationship, government to government.
Is that the usual process when a new president takes office?
When the party in government changes there have been historically some holdovers from one party to the next to ensure a smooth transition. To my knowledge, there weren’t any holdovers of any of the ambassadors from the Obama administration to the [Trump administration], of the political appointees, with maybe a health exception.
The good news is that Telford and Butts have created effective relationships within the White House, because they’ve gone direct. It’s kind of like they built their own artery into the White House, which will serve them well over the entire length of this presidency, as these relationships will continue to build over time.
What would you say to U.S. allies around the world who are concerned with what they have seen from this White House?
I think in the last four weeks we have unsettled more governments and more people in the world than any four weeks that I can ever imagine in my life. It’s unfortunate we don’t have ambassadors in place, in so many of these places that could be a balancing force in that conversation. In many ways, ambassadors not only take in information and explain it from the United States to their country, but also take information from their country and go back to the United States. I’m hopeful that we quickly get ambassadors in place and I hope that they have the political fortitude to go to the White House to be able to voice the concerns that are being voiced geopolitically.
[But also] I have a lot of confidence in the American system — the three branches of government, the role of media, the role of free speech, the freedom of assembly — and I do believe that the checks and balances, both formal and informal, that exist in our society will cause the appropriate course corrections that will need to take place.
It’s going to be a bumpy road. I think we’re going to have a very challenging time, near-term, but I have confidence in the American system, that it’s going to come through in the end. It was built for these kinds of outcomes — albeit this is most unusual.
This interview has been condensed and edited for clarity.