A senior adviser to Barack Obama told the Canadian government that the Democratic presidential frontrunner’s campaign rhetoric on free trade should be viewed as “political positioning”, according to a leaked memo.

The memo provided the first firm evidence to support week-old allegations that the Obama campaign issued private reassurances to Canada while publicly criticising the North American Free Trade Agreement (Nafta).

The furore stems from a meeting between Austan Goolsbee, Mr Obama’s senior economic adviser, and officials at the Candian consulate in Chicago last month.

In a summary of the meeting, a Canadian diplomat wrote that Mr Goolsbee “acknowledged the protectionist sentiment that has emerged, particularly in the Midwest, during the primary campaign”.

“He cautioned that this messaging should not be taken out of context and should be viewed as more about political positioning than a clear articulation of policy plans,” said the memo, which was obtained by the Associated Press.

In a televised debate last week, Mr Obama vowed to push for renegotiation of Nafta and threatened to withdraw from the agreement if Canada and Mexico refused.

The 13-year-old deal, which removed tariffs on most trade between the US, Canada and Mexico, has become the focus of economic debate ahead of Tuesday’s primary election in Ohio, which has suffered a painful exodus of manufacturing jobs.

Hillary Clinton on Monday seized on the memo to raise questions about her opponent’s authenticity as she fights to keep her presidential ambitions alive.

She accused Mr Obama of giving “the old wink-wink” to the Canadian government while assuring Americans that he would fight to protect US jobs.

Mr Goolsbee on Monday acknowledged he had met Canadian officials but said he had been misquoted in the memo. Mr Obama last week denied knowledge of any meeting between his campaign and the Canadian government.

The Canadian embassy in Washington expressed regret for how the meeting had been interpreted. “There was no intention to convey, in any way, that Senator Obama and his campaign team were taking a different position in public from views expressed in private,” it said.

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