WASHINGTON — Prime Minister Justin Trudeau has arrived at the White House for his first face-to-face meeting with U.S. President Donald Trump.
Trump and Trudeau were both smiling and appeared to greet each other warmly as they shook hands at the door to the West Wing before the president ushered the prime minister inside.
Trudeau was accompanied by a who’s who of the Canadian government, including Foreign Affairs Minister Chrystia Freeland, Defence Minister Harjit Sajjan, Public Safety Minister Ralph Goodale and Finance Minister Bill Morneau.
Trudeau and his senior cabinet ministers are in Washington with one overarching goal: keep Canada out of the U.S president’s protectionist trade crosshairs.
That’s because Trump wants to renegotiate the North American Free Trade Agreement, has mused about a border tax, and could bring back “Buy American” protectionism.
That is widely viewed as a major threat to the more than $2 billion in daily trade that flows across the world’s longest undefended border — the gateway to the biggest trading relationship on the planet.
Those high stakes prompted Freeland to reach out to interim Conservative leader Rona Ambrose in a Jan. 23 letter asking for the input of the official Opposition.
“The importance of the relationship must transcend partisanship,” Freeland said in the letter, a copy of which was obtained by The Canadian Press.
“While these fundamental principles of our relationship with the United States endure beyond any change in government, the prospect of a new U.S. administration has prompted our government to actively engage with the incoming administration in order to ensure Canada’s interests are best promoted and defended.”
Ambrose replied with a letter to the prime minister over the weekend proposing they work together on a bipartisan basis to build a relationship.
She noted that members of her caucus have forged strong contacts with American lawmakers and some also have experience in trade issues, a crucial area given Trump’s plan to renegotiate NAFTA.
NDP Leader Tom Mulcair, however, has criticized Trudeau for not being more strident.
Ian Lee, a professor at the Sprott School of Business at Carleton University in Ottawa, said it would be “childish and juvenile and irresponsible” for anyone to think Trudeau’s job is to go to Washington to preach Canadian values to Trump.
“This is a profound misunderstanding of history, a profound misunderstanding of the role of the prime minister of Canada.”
A new NAFTA, a possible import tax and Buy America protectionism would all be catastrophic for Canada, Lee said, so Trudeau has to make sure Canada is exempted.
With anxiety running high on the Canadian side, Trudeau and Trump are to meet late morning in the Oval Office.
Freeland, who is also in charge of the Canada-U.S. trade file, will be one of several other top officials joining Trudeau and Trump for a broader meeting about Canada-U.S. relations..
Freeland, Sajjan and Morneau were in Washington last week to lay the groundwork for today’s meeting, while Goodale and Transport Minister Marc Garneau worked the phones.
Trump and Trudeau will then host a round-table discussion with women business leaders and female entrepreneurs, launching a task force that aims to keep professional women in the workforce — a priority, officials say, for both leaders.
The initiative offers some political cover to Trudeau who has repeatedly deflected questions about derogatory statements towards women attributed to Trump during the U.S. presidential election campaign. The closest Trudeau has come was to reassert that he is a feminist when pressed to react to the lewd comments by Trump caught on tape and released last fall during the presidential campaign.
The two will lunch together at the White House, and hold a joint press conference mid-afternoon.
While setting the tone for a good personal relationship at the executive level will be a key goal of Trudeau’s, he will also be turning his attention to Congress — another key cog in the Canada-U.S. wheel.
Trudeau will met Paul Ryan, Speaker of the United States House of Representatives and Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell.
Trump and Trudeau have talked on the phone a couple of times since the Nov. 8 presidential election. But the prime minister has steered clear of directly commenting on some of Trump’s controversial statements and actions, such as the ban on travellers from seven Muslim majority countries.
Last week, Trudeau said he would be respectful in broaching areas where the two men disagree, and he pointed out there are issues where he sees eye-to-eye with Trump, such as creating jobs for the middle class.
The federal Liberals have also indicated they are willing to re-negotiate NAFTA, responding to a campaign promise by Trump to ditch the current accord. However, the scope and timing of the talks are not clear because several of Trump’s key cabinet players and officials are not yet in place.
“I am counting on having a good working, constructive relationship with the president,” Trudeau said last week in Yellowknife.
No doubt the prime minister of Australia had the same goal, but Trump lashed out at Malcolm Turnbull over an immigration matter during their first phone conversation earlier this month. Trump cut the call short.
Relations with Mexico are also frayed, with Trump persisting with plans to build a wall between the two countries to keep out unwanted migrants.
Japan, on the other hand, is likely breathing a sigh of relief after a meeting between Shinzo Abe and Trump — followed by a weekend of golf at Trump’s palatial home in Florida — went off without any major incident.