WASHINGTON – President Donald Trump will receive Prime Minister Justin Trudeau at the White House on Monday — their first official meeting after weeks of back-and-forth about setting a tangible agenda beyond pleasantries and first-encounter photo ops.
Several people familiar with the planning said uncertainty about the date lingered for a reason: the Canadian side wanted specific results, while the American administration is still busy getting its cabinet confirmed.
The scheduling drama was further fuelled by a spectacular public rift between Trump and the president of Mexico last month, scrubbing plans for a potential trilateral meeting of the continent’s Three Amigos.
The White House announced the encounter at its daily press briefing.
“The president looks forward to a constructive conversation in strengthening the deep relationship that exists between the United States and Canada,” said spokesman Sean Spicer.
The countries discussed various plans for a first encounter. The Canadian side considered different destinations that would allow it to leave a positive first impression of trade with Canada, while avoiding the blast radius of the Manhattanite’s project of reducing imports.
During a visit to the Arctic, Trudeau was asked Thursday about whether he planned to broach some of Trump’s more controversial policies, such as the now-infamous travel ban.
His answer nicely illustrated the fine line Canada must now walk as he described what he considers his two primary responsibilities.
“The first is, of course, to highlight Canadian values and principles and the things that we know make our country strong … we have a set of solutions that work very well, not just for our community and our country, but indeed our world,” he said.
“The second responsibility I have, which we will very much be engaged in, is creating jobs and opportunity for Canadian citizens through the continued close integration on both sides of the border…
“I will continue to discuss on a broad range of issues with the American president.”
That border was one possible meeting venue that had been under consideration — the idea was raised in a December interview by Canada’s U.S. ambassador David MacNaughton. The new administration wants a massive construction-jobs program, and there are several big projects underway along the border.
Another early idea considered was a U.S. manufacturing facility — the goal being to emphasize the nine million American jobs tied to trade with Canada.
The Canadian government is working to drill that figure into the memory of every American it meets. Different cabinet ministers were in Washington this week, reciting that statistic with metronomic regularity.
The latest was Finance Minister Bill Morneau. In a speech to Georgetown University, he referred to the nine million jobs; the fact trade-related jobs pay more; and the fact that trade surpluses and deficits are fairly even in the northern half of the continent, which appears to be a priority for the Trump team.
“I think Americans intuitively understand the strength of the relationship,” Morneau later told reporters. “But the specifics, and the specific advantage… that’s up to us to communicate.”
Trump’s rift with Mexico hinted at the scare scenario for trading partners like Canada.
The U.S. president promised some kind of border tax would make Mexico pay for the wall he intends to build. Canada has launched a pre-emptive warning over the idea, with Foreign Affairs Minister Chrystia Freeland saying Ottawa would retaliate if hit with any such border tax.
The good news is that the conversation about U.S. corporate-tax reform is only just beginning — every idea floated so far for a foreign-goods penalty has found some criticism, even within the Republican party.
Freeland said she left Washington feeling optimistic about U.S. sentiment towards Canada. In a possible hint of the conversation next week between Trump and Trudeau, she said that in her meetings she discussed making trade easier with Canada.
One idea Freeland specifically mentioned: extending pre-clearance for cargo, amid ongoing pilot projects to screen train passengers before they board so they bypass customs logjams.
“Our conversations focused on ways to make that border thinner,” she said.
Canada has one major advantage working for it right now, said one prominent analyst of Canada-U.S. relations: Trump could use some productive international relationships.
The Mexicans are furious. Hostile phone conversations with the leaders of Australia and France have been leaked to the media. The leaders of the U.K. and Spain have extended an olive branch — only to face a backlash from their own citizens, who want that branch pulled back.
The U.S. president was even declared persona non grata by the Speaker of the U.K. Parliament.
”Trump is looking for some victories right now,” said Laura Dawson, of Washington’s Canada Institute at the Wilson Center.
”You’re not going to invite a world leader to your office in order to treat them badly. So I think they’ll be looking for an ‘announceable’ that will be a mutual win for both of them…. Showing himself to have a positive relationship with Trudeau will help Trump’s image and success at home.”
But Trudeau faces domestic pressure, too.
The prime minister is already being pulled in different directions as to how he should handle his unconventional interlocutor — on the one hand, some critics on the right have accused him of sounding too negative about Trump, and jeopardizing business ties.
On the other, the NDP insists he hasn’t done enough to denounce Trump’s treatment of minorities, beyond tweeting photos of himself with Syrian refugees after the president announced his travel ban.