LA MALBAIE, Que. — Donald Trump’s fellow G7 leaders greeted the president’s aggressive pre-summit bluster with a warm, reassuring breeze in an attempt to bridge their vast divide with him on trade and welcoming Russia back to their fold.
Trump, in turn, responded by using his first public remarks on Canadian soil as president to crack jokes with summit host Prime Minister Justin Trudeau at their bilateral meeting at a scenic Quebec resort overlooking the St. Lawrence River.
The president also offered reassurance that Canada and the U.S. have made progress in their trade dispute over his administration’s punishing steel and aluminum tariffs on all the other G7 members.
Trump insisted the Canada-U.S. relationship is as good or better than it has ever been, and he even quipped that there might be a way the badly divided G7 could reach a consensus in their final communique on Saturday.
“I think we’ll have a joint statement,” Trump said.
The possibility of that seemed far-fetched only hours earlier.
For the past week, it was an open question in Ottawa whether Trump would actually show up, after he imposed the heavy tariffs. The G7 leaders were planning to press him to lift those duties in their opening sessions Friday, egged on by Trump’s early morning tweets complaining about unfair trade and Canada’s supply management.
Then Trump upped the ante. He mused to reporters at the White House in pre-departure remarks about allowing Russia back into the G7. That moved him squarely offside with most of his fellow G7 leaders, including Trudeau, on one of their most serious, shared international security concerns.
“Why are we having a meeting without Russia in the meeting?” Trump said at the White House just before departing.
“They should let Russia come back in because we should have Russia at the negotiating table.”
Italian Prime Minister Giuseppe Conte — a rookie populist who’s been on the job only a week — fuelled the disharmony amongst the G7 by tweeting his support for the U.S. president’s position.
European Council President Donald Tusk expressed broad concern about Trump’s opposition to the international rules-based order, because it “is being challenged, quite surprisingly, not by the usual suspects but by its main architect and guarantor, the U.S.”
“We will not stop trying to convince our American friends and President Trump that undermining this order makes no sense at all because it would only play into the hands of those who seek a new post-West order where liberal democracy and fundamental freedoms would cease to exist,” said Tusk.
Foreign Affairs Minister Chrystia Freeland flatly rejected allowing Russia back into the G7 fold. She listed the reasons why the G7 yanked Russia’s invitation to the club in 2014, including its invasion of Ukraine, the annexation of Crimea and the recent chemical weapon attack on a former Russian spy and his daughter in the British town of Salisbury.
Freeland said Russia has made it clear with actions like these that it has no interest in following the rules of Western democracies, like those in the G7.
“Canada’s position is absolutely clear that there are no grounds whatsoever for bringing Russia, with its current behaviour, back into the G7,” Freeland said in La Malbaie.
But in a sign of the attempt to lighten the mood, Freeland also said the first leaders’ working session with Trump on the state of the world economy was a rich and productive discussion.
Freeland said the Russia issue did not come up in any formal way around the G7 tables Friday, although she noted Canada discussed it with allies during bilateral meetings.
She acknowledged that Canada and the U.S. have disagreed on significant issues in the past — such as the Vietnam and Iraq wars — and still have differences today when it comes to things like climate change and the steel and aluminum tariffs.
But she stressed there are many areas where Canada is working closely and effectively together. A major example, she added, is Trump’s summit in the coming days with North Korea’s Kim Jong Un.
“I think one of the results of this G7 leaders’ meeting will be to talk about the situation on the Korean peninsula and let the U.S. president know, and let the world know, that he will be travelling to Singapore to the meeting with the North Korea with the strong support of his allies,” Freeland said.
One source speaking on the condition of anonymity described the overall cordial tone with Trump as an attempt to lay a positive foundation for tougher discussions that would follow.
French President Emmanuel Macron, who was fiercely critical of Trump as recently as Thursday in Ottawa, posted a video of his meeting with the president on Friday that contained a caption out of a Hallmark greeting card.
“Pursuing the conversation. Engaging, keeping the dialogue alive, now & ever. Sharing, reaching out, always, to promote the interests of the French people, and all those who believe in a world we can build together,” Macron wrote.
Trudeau addressed Trump by his first name off the top of their meeting and offered warm greetings. The two also appeared relaxed in their welcome handshake — despite a harsh, public exchange of insults over the past few days.
Trump injected levity into his photo-op with Trudeau before the start of their meeting. He joked that he’d won his trade dispute with Canada on the metal tariffs.
“Well Justin, it’s been really great. And I appreciate, you know, Justin has agreed to cut all tariffs and all trade barriers between Canada and the United States. So I’m very happy,” Trump said, as the room erupted in laughter.
But then Trump turned conciliatory.
“We are actually working on cutting tariffs in making it all very fair for both countries and we’ve made a lot of progress today. We’ll see how it all works out, but we’ve made a lot of progress.”
Before the two leaders went behind closed doors, someone shouted a question at the prime minister to ask if he was disappointed the president intended to leave the summit early on Saturday.
Trump answered for Trudeau with a joke: “He’s happy.” The quip drew laughs and Trump flashed a big grin.
Andy Blatchford and Mike Blanchfield, The Canadian Press