WASHINGTON – Justin Trudeau sat next to Donald Trump’s daughter Ivanka as the two leaders met Monday with a group of female business executives, one of several events on day marked by the first face-to-face encounters between the prime minister and the U.S. president.
Perfunctory handshakes and smiles for the cameras outside the doors to the West Wing were followed by much the same thing inside the Oval Office before the pair sat down to talk about the advancement of women entrepreneurs and business leaders.
“I’m very honoured to be here with Prime Minister Trudeau,” Trump said during a brief photo op prior to the roundtable talks.
“His father I knew, and respected greatly. And he gave me a picture of myself and your father (Pierre Trudeau).”
That photo was taken in 1981 at the Family of Man award ceremony in New York City, where the elder Trudeau was honoured as “an outstanding example of excellence in society,” according to White House officials.
Trudeau came bearing gifts as well: a sculpture of a lion made out of Berea sandstone, the same material from an Ohio quarry that was used to construct Canada’s three original Parliament Buildings.
Trudeau and Trump also took part in private meetings and a working lunch before a joint news conference scheduled for later Monday.
Earlier in the day, both leaders smiled 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.