Did Donald Trump Tell Justin Trudeau That Canada Burned Down the White House in 1812?

Three news outlets confirmed that the United States president made the comment to Canada's prime minister during a phone call about trade.

Image via Wikimedia Commons

On 6 June 2018, CNN reported that during a 25 May 2018 phone call with Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, United States President Donald Trump referenced the War of 1812, and accused the U.S. neighbor and ally of burning down the White House:

President Donald Trump and Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau had a testy phone call on May 25 over new tariffs imposed by the Trump administration targeting steel and aluminum imports coming from Canada, including one moment during the conversation in which Trump made an erroneous historical reference, sources familiar with the discussion told CNN.

According to the sources, Trudeau pressed Trump on how he could justify the tariffs as a “national security” issue. In response, Trump quipped to Trudeau, “Didn’t you guys burn down the White House?” referring to the War of 1812.

Since the CNN report was published, both the New York Times and Canadian Broadcasting Corporation separately confirmed the accuracy of the report. 

A read-out of the call posted to the White House web site says only:

President Donald J. Trump spoke today with Prime Minister Justin Trudeau of Canada about the North American Free Trade Agreement and other trade and economic issues.

We reached out to Trudeau’s office, and his spokesman Matt Pascuzzo told us he was unable to comment on the discussion but pointed us to the Canadian readout of the call:

Today, the Prime Minister, Justin Trudeau, spoke with the President of the United States, Donald J. Trump.

The leaders discussed the North American Free Trade Agreement including bringing the negotiations to a timely conclusion.

The Prime Minister also raised strong concerns about the U.S.’s Section 232 investigation on automobile imports, given the mutually beneficial integration of the Canadian and American auto industries.

On 31 May 2018, the White House announced the imposition of tariffs on imported Canadian steel and aluminum, drawing a sharp rebuke from Trudeau, who took to Twitter to say Canada will fight the “illegal and counterproductive measures” and that it was “simply ridiculous” to view any type of trade with Canada as a national security threat:


One of CNN’s sources told reporters it was unclear if the comment was interpreted as a joke by Trudeau, saying, “To the degree one can ever take what is said as a joke. The impact on Canada and ultimately on workers in the US won’t be a laughing matter.”

Even if the president’s statement was meant in jest, it is an inaccurate characterization of history. Canada did not exist as a country until 1867, but as the Times explained, it’s not that simple:

Canada didn’t become a nation until 1867, long after British troops did, in fact, burn down the White House in 1814. The fire gutted the president’s house along with several other crucial structures in Washington, which was still a relatively small town when the seat of government moved there 14 years earlier.

“The inferno was so great that the glow in the night sky was seen from 50 miles away,” the White House Historical Association wrote.

So you can’t really pin that on Canada, considering that Canada didn’t exist. But it is a bit more complicated than that.

The United States did invade the colonies that later became Canada and were, at the time, controlled by the British. Ask some people in Canada and they would very much feel it was their war, marked by American aggression.

  • Acosta, Jim, and Newton, Paula. “Exclusive: Trump Invokes War of 1812 in Testy Call With Trudeau Over Tariffs.”
      CNN. 6 June 2018.

  • Victor, Daniel. “No, Mr. Trump, Canada Did Not Burn the White House Down in the War of 1812.”
      The New York Times. 6 June 2018.

  • Harris, Kathleen. “Trump, Trudeau Had a Testy Phone Exchange Over Steel Tariffs.”
      CBC. 6 June 2018.

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