Clinton Campaign Demands Obama Answers on NAFTA

Canadian government denies Obama official downplayed recent rhetoric.


Feb. 29, 2008 — -- Sen. Hillary Clinton's campaign questioned the sincerity of rival Sen. Barack Obama's recent rhetoric against NAFTA today, citing a Canadian television report that suggested a senior Obama campaign official had told an official within the Canadian government not to take Obama's anti-trade agreement statements seriously.

On Wednesday, the Canadian Television network reported that two unnamed Canadian sources said a "senior member" of Obama's campaign team had called Michael Wilson, Canada's ambassador in Washington, in the last month to warn him that Obama would be ratcheting up rhetoric against the North American Free Trade Agreement, but that he should "not be worried about what Obama says about NAFTA," adding, "It's just campaign rhetoric. … It's not serious."

Both the Canadian Embassy and the Obama campaign have repeatedly denied the CTV report.

However, a source close to the Canadian prime minister's office tells ABC News that the original communication was between Austan Goolsbee, Obama's senior economic adviser and an economics professor at the University of Chicago, and Georges Rioux, Canada's consul general in Chicago, about Obama's rhetoric against NAFTA.

According to the source, Wilson exaggerated the communication between the Obama campaign and the Canadian official during discussions this week with Ian Brodie, the prime minister's chief of staff, who leaked the story to CTV.

Since the Ohio Democratic debate last week, the Canadian government has fielded questions from opposition parties and the media about Obama and Clinton's anti-NAFTA rhetoric.

ABC News spoke to Goolsbee, Thursday, and who denied calling the Canadian embassy in Washington, or calling Rioux, but wouldn't confirm or deny whether he had spoke to Rioux about Obama's NAFTA rhetoric.

"It's not correct that I contacted them," Goolsbee told ABC News Thursday. "They contacted me at one point to say 'hello' because their office is around the corner but it is not correct that I contacted them at all," he said.

"I am not confirming or denying any meetings with anyone," Goolsbee told ABC News, directing queries to Bill Burton, Obama's campaign spokesperson.

Rioux, who was in Ottawa for meetings this week with the Prime Minister's Office, told ABC News that he too will neither confirm nor deny whether he spoke to Goolsbee.

Both men live in Chicago, where Obama's campaign is headquartered.

The Obama campaign isn't responding to requests for information about the reported conversation between Goolsbee and Rioux.

Howard Wolfson, Clinton's communications director, demanded today that the Obama campaign answer whether or not Goolsbee had reassured the Canadian official about Obama's rhetoric.

"It is a very simple question. It requires a simple yes or no. We don't need any equivocation — just a simple yes or no will do," Wolfson said.

If true, Wolfson alleged, it would be an example of Obama's saying one thing and doing another.

"I'm reminded of Sen. Obama's vociferous criticism of NAFTA when he's in Ohio, but his praise of it before a group of farmers when he's running for office in the state of Illinois in 2004," Wolfson said, pointing to a September 2004 Associated Press article quoting Obama as saying the United States should continue to pursue trade deals such as NAFTA.

"Austan Goolsbee secretly sending messages to the Canadian government, elements of the Canadian government, that the criticism of NAFTA should not be taken seriously," Wolfson said. "Very simple question — it deserves a very simple answer: Has Austan Goolsbee had any contact with anyone in the Canadian government or the embassy to send such a message?"

Before the Clinton campaign's call, the Obama campaign stood by its previous denials of any outreach from the Obama campaign to the Canadian government, but would not specifically address reports of a conversation between Goolsbee and the Canadian official.

"It's telling that the Clinton campaign's closing argument is based on a story run on a Canadian television station that's already been debunked by the Canadian Embassy," Obama campaign spokesman Bill Burton said.

"Again, this story is not true. There was no one at any level of our campaign, at any point, anywhere, who said or otherwise implied Obama was backing away from his consistent position on trade. The only flip-flopping on NAFTA has come from Sen. Clinton, who talked about how good it was for America until she started running for President," Burton said.

The free trade agreement, signed into law by former President Clinton, is highly controversial in the crucial March 4 voting state of Ohio, where it is blamed for job losses.

The Canadian government supports NAFTA and says it has reached out to U.S. presidential candidates to make its case.

"We do have diplomatic representatives posted in many places in the U.S. and these representatives are actively talking to decision makers in the U.S. and that includes people who are involved on the campaigns," said Tristan Landry, a spokesman for the Canadian Embassy in Washington, D.C.

"At no point did any member of a presidential campaign call the Canadian ambassador or any official working for this embassy to discuss NAFTA. That is simply not true," he said.

The Canadian government says NAFTA is responsible for creating 7 million jobs within the United States.

Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., suggested today that Obama's and Clinton's threats to walk away from the treaty could threaten Canadian military help in Afghanistan.

"If we announce that we're going to unilaterally change a treaty or suspend it … obviously that I think it can affect Canadian public opinion adversely, in fact I've been told that by my Canadian friends and colleagues," he told reporters after a town hall meeting at the corporate headquarters of Dell Inc.

"The Canadians are now supplying brave young Canadians to the fight in Afghanistan. One of our priorities is to try to get more cooperation from our allies throughout the world."

"All these things are interconnected," he said, suggesting such a demand would affect Canadian public opinion, which "could have an adverse affect on the situation with regards to their commitment to Afghanistan which we all know is a matter of controversy among the Canadian people."

ABC News' Jake Tapper contributed reporting.

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