Q&A: David MacNaughton, Justin Trudeau’s man in Washington D.C.

Q&A: David MacNaughton, Justin Trudeau’s man in Washington D.C.

David MacNaughton is Canada’s new ambassador to the U.S. What it’s like to occupy our highest foreign office, chit-chat with Obama and prep for a possible Trump presidency

David MacNaughton. David MacNaughton.
 Photograph by T.J. Kirkpatrick

In January, Prime Minister Trudeau named you ambassador to the U.S. For those unfamiliar with your backstory: what qualifies you for the gig?
I’ve had extensive experience in the United States. I once owned a government relations firm in Washington, and I ran North American operations for another one. I’ve worked on several Liberal campaigns, including the most recent federal one, for which I co-chaired the Ontario campaign. And I have a close relationship with the prime minister, who, I’m told, trusts me. I guess that’s a good thing.

Does a minty-fresh diplomat like you have to attend some kind of ambassadorial boot camp to get up to speed?
In a sense. I was briefed in Ottawa by subject matter experts in global affairs, transport, public safety, and more.

You’ve been in Washington for a few months. Is House of Cards fully fictional, semi-fictional or fully non-fictional?
Fully fictional, but it’s funny you ask. At the White House correspondents’ dinner, I met Michael Kelly, who plays Doug Stamper on House of Cards. He is such a jerk on the show, but in person, he’s a really nice guy. I complimented him on his superb acting skills.

A major part of your job is throwing dinner parties. How is your toast game?
I’m not so big on the social scene. I’m more interested in policy discussions than small talk. But so far, the embassy has hosted 20 events, including one for the U.S. and Canadian Supreme Court justices.

You presented your credentials to President Obama recently at the White House. What did you two discuss?
He needled me about the lack of Canadian NHL teams in the playoffs. And then he asked for advice on raising daughters, of which I have four, all grown now. I told him that when my second daughter was 15, she said that all the boys were scared of me. This pleased me greatly. My words of wisdom for Mr. Obama: when it comes to daughters and dating, fear is an asset.

What do your daughters do now?
They are 38, 36, 34 and 32, and officially off the family payroll. The eldest is heading up a project at Trillium Health Centre integrating mental and physical health. My second teaches French in Oakville. My third does sports marketing and my baby is a lawyer at Gowlings.

Your wife, Leslie, is a lifelong right-winger and one-time president of the Conservative party. On what issues do you disagree most?
Everything to do with politics. So we talk about the Raptors and Jays instead. It’s no fun to talk about the Leafs.

Have you met Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump?
I met Hillary at the 1992 inauguration, when her husband became president. She was open and gracious. I have never met Mr. Trump, but I know a lot of Republicans, some of whom support him.

At which stage of grief—denial, anger, depression, bargaining, acceptance—are the remaining Republicans now?
A lot of them are rallying around the candidate that the system produced. But I would add that the media experts are usually wrong in their political predictions, so I don’t know why people take them seriously. In terms of the general election—we’re still months away. A lot can change in far less time than that.

Policy-wise, Trudeau and Trump are odd bedfellows. For instance, without naming names, Trudeau expressed concerns about certain xenophobic immigration stances. Are there any areas where those two are aligned?
First of all, I don’t think the prime minister made any comments about Mr. Trump, other than to say he’d work with whomever is elected. Americans are an inclusive people, and I think that their generosity toward Canada will win the day, regardless of the election’s outcome.

The maxim goes that controversial ambassadors don’t last long. So here’s a non-pointy question: can you pay The Donald a compliment?
Well, you’re quite right, controversial ambassadors don’t tend to stick around. And I like my job very much, so I think the best thing for me to do is to not comment on any of the potential candidates.

Probably a smart choice. You may well be cut out for this whole diplomacy thing.
Here’s hoping.