An Alberta pit stop on Trump’s bizarro road to the White House

Kellyanne Conway’s trip to the oil sands could set the tone for Canada-U.S. relations in the Trump era

Kellyanne Conway, campaign manager for President-elect Donald Trump, speaks to media at Trump Tower, Thursday, Nov. 17, 2016, in New York. (Carolyn Kaster/AP/CP)

Kellyanne Conway, campaign manager for President-elect Donald Trump, speaks to media at Trump Tower, Thursday, Nov. 17, 2016, in New York. (Carolyn Kaster/AP/CP)

Early on Tuesday afternoon, the Prime Minister’s Office announced in a news release that U.S. Vice-President Joe Biden will visit Ottawa during Justin Trudeau’s meeting with the premiers—and the Canadians will throw a dinner in the veep’s honour.

This was a quaint reminder of how foreign dignitary visits traditionally get announced and arranged. It came a few hours after a reminder of how deals and diplomacy will get done in Trumpworld—with all the pomp and circumstance of a couple of phone calls and back-slaps.

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Kellyanne Conway, Donald Trump’s home-stretch campaign manager and senior adviser to his transition, will visit Calgary and the Fort McMurray-area oil sands in January, a week before the boss’s presidential inauguration. It was announced and will be hosted by Alberta Prosperity Fund, which calls itself a political “super PAC” and launched last year to unify Alberta conservatives in response to the NDP’s electoral victory. Conway will headline a private fundraising dinner for the group on Jan. 12.

On one hand, Conway holds no formal role with the Trump transition team and has not yet been named to his White House. She’s being invited as a private citizen, Prosperity Fund president Barry McNamar tells Maclean’s. Former or private U.S. politicos often travel north for lectures, meetings or private events; McNamar’s group held a fundraiser last year with influential anti-tax crusader Grover Norquist.

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But oh goodness, all that is on the other hand:

  • By mid-January, Conway could very well be named to a senior West Wing role, giving this visit much more prominence and significance as a diplomatic or proto-diplomatic trip by the Trump administration. For now, she is serving as a key adviser and daily presence at the president-elect’s side at Trump Tower, as well as one of the transition team’s key spokespeople.
  • This relatively obscure political group, perhaps in the interest of self-promotion, is giving the event an air of a formal Trump envoy visit. The Alberta group is billing the event as one by “an influential member of a U.S. administration” that “should send a strong signal to Canadians on the importance of this province to the United States.” McNamar will invite Alberta Premier Rachel Notley and other premiers, he says.
  • This is another signal of the backdoor diplomacy that Trump’s team has embraced during the transition—and may once he’s the Oval Office occupant. Argentina’s president’s go-between for arranging a post-election Trump phone call was the developer of a proposed Trump Tower in Buenos Aires. In the case of this Conway visit, McNamar says one of the group’s directors had a contact with someone on the Trump team and they helped secure Conway’s visit. McNamar wouldn’t say who was involved on either side: “This was strictly a conversation between friends. Can we do something to advance the cause of Canada-U.S. relations?”
  • This may serve as a pointy stick to U.S.-Alberta relations. Conway is meeting with a group that was founded to consolidate conservatives. In July, the group endorsed would-be premier Jason Kenney and his bid to merge the Alberta Tories and Wildrose parties, a cause the prosperity fund declared “essential to ensure the defeat of the NDP in the next election.” It is unclear Conway is aware that she is lending support to a group trying to knock out Alberta’s governing party; it is unclear whether Trump would be concerned about such political niceties.
  • Is Conway getting paid to attend a Canadian political action committee’s fundraiser? McNamar refused to answer this question. This would raise more red flags and conflict questions if she’s part of the administration. McNamar says the fundraiser will mostly be designed to defray costs of the visit, and any “residue” would fill the group’s coffers, but he doesn’t expect any.
  • This also demands the question: why is a top Trump aide taking time out of this mad rush toward taking over the White House to pay a visit to Alberta? After all, it’s already well-known that Trump supports construction of the Keystone XL pipeline that will ship oil sands crude.
  • The Trump administration’s penchant for secrecy and privacy will be on display here as well. This fundraising dinner will be private, and her hosts aren’t disclosing which oil sands operations she will visit. Though it will remain a secret what she tells Alberta business figures and conservative activists, Conway will make herself available to the media at some point during her visit, McNamar says.

By January, we’ll likely know if this is a private person lending support to a private advocacy group, or if it’s a senior White House official doing oil sands reconnaissance and lending support to a private advocacy group. We might even know by then how far Trump takes his climate change skepticism and environmental reforms. Either way, Jan. 12 will become some sort of eye-opening introduction to how Canada-U.S. relations get done in the Trump era.

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