President Joe Biden’s first bilateral meeting with Canada’s Justin Trudeau since taking office was high on policy, low on pomp and featured a very large swipe at Biden's predecessor as the coronavirus forced the two leaders to convene virtually Tuesday rather than gathering with customary Oval Office fanfare.
The two leaders — Biden in the Roosevelt Room at the White House and Trudeau in the prime minister's office in Ottawa — delivered friendly opening remarks in front of the media, with flags from both countries on display at both ends of the long-distance conversation.
“The United States has no closer friend, no closer friend, than Canada,” Biden said.
Trudeau, in turn, commended Biden for quickly rejoining the Paris climate accord, a worldwide pact to curb climate emissions that President Donald Trump walked away from early in his term. The prime minister, who had a frosty relationship with Trump at times, worked in a jab at Trump as he praised Biden.
“U.S. leadership has been sorely missed over the past years,” Trudeau said. “And I have to say as we were preparing the joint rollout of the communiqué on this, it’s nice when the Americans are not pulling out all the references to climate change and instead adding them in.”
In remarks at the end of the talks, Biden for the first time publicly spoke out against the detention of two Canadian citizens imprisoned in China in apparent retaliation for Canada’s arrest of a top Huawei executive.
“Human beings are not bartering chips,” Biden said of the two Canadians. “We are going to work together until their safe return.”
Trudeau, for his part, publicly thanked Biden for his support in seeking the men’s release.
Michael Spavor and Michael Kovrig were detained in China following the arrest of Huawei Chief Financial Officer Meng Wanzhou in Canada after the U.S. requested her extradition to face charges that the Chinese telecom company executive committed wire and bank fraud and violated U.S. sanctions on Iran. She denies the allegations.
China lashed out at Canada last week for joining the U.S. and 56 other countries in endorsing a declaration denouncing state-sponsored arbitrary detention of foreign citizens for political purposes.
Trudeau's broadside of Trump was a notable coda to a relationship marked by some notably undiplomatic moments.
The Republican president, in a fit of pique in 2018, took to Twitter to label the prime minister “dishonest and weak” after Trudeau voiced objections to Trump raising tariffs on steel and aluminum from Canada, Mexico and the European Union.
Trump blew up again at Trudeau in 2019, calling him “two-faced” after the Canadian leader was caught on video mocking the American president as he spoke to other world leaders on the sidelines of a NATO conference at Buckingham Palace.
In pre-pandemic times, the Biden-Trudeau meeting would have been held with far more fanfare: Biden welcoming the Canadian prime minister with great ceremony upon his arrival, an Oval Office talk between the two leaders, a joint news conference and perhaps a luncheon.
But with both leaders stressing caution to their citizens, Biden and Trudeau set aside the typical protocol in favor of talks by video conference. U.S. presidents traditionally invite the Canadian prime minister for their first meeting with a world leader.
While cable stations in the United States stuck with breaking news about pro golfer Tiger Woods' serious car crash, Canada's CTV and CBC carried the leaders' opening remarks live.
The two leaders agreed to a “road map” outlining how the neighboring countries will work together to fight COVID-19, curb climate emissions and pursue other shared priorities.
Trudeau again raised with Biden the idea of allowing Canada, which is struggling to vaccinate its population, to buy vaccines produced in the U.S, according to a senior Canadian government official who spoke on the condition of anonymity to detail the private talks. Canada currently is getting vaccines shipped from Pfizer and Moderna plants in Europe.
Trudeau brought up the issue when the two leaders spoke by phone last month, Biden's first call to a foreign leader as president. But Biden's “first priority” remains “ensuring every American is vaccinated,” White House press secretary Jen Psaki said ahead of the meeting. Biden's team offered the same message to Trudeau privately.
The prime minister's office said in a statement that Biden and Trudeau discussed how the pandemic “will not end until everyone, everywhere has access to a vaccine” and "the importance of avoiding measures that may constrain the critical trade and supply-chain security between our countries.”
Neither leader in public remarks mentioned differences over Biden's “Buy American” executive order or his decision to halt construction of the Keystone XL pipeline, a transcontinental project that was to bring oil from the tar sands of Alberta to the Texas Gulf Coast, passing through Montana, South Dakota, Nebraska, Kansas and Oklahoma. The Keystone decision came up in the talks with Biden standing by his decision to stop the project as he promised to do during his campaign, according to the Canadian government official.
Trudeau, who supported the project, expressed his disappointment with Biden's decision when the two spoke by phone last month.
The Canadian side also raised concerns about the “Buy American” executive order that Biden signed during his first week in office. It is designed to encourage the federal government to spend more of the roughly $600 billion earmarked for procurement to boost U.S. factories and hiring.
Biden previously said that as part of the push he was creating a “Made in America” office to evaluate contracts and make sure waivers are used only in “very limited circumstances.” The issue is crucial to Canada since the U.S. accounts for about 75% of its exports.
White House officials say no decisions have been made on waivers.
Madhani reported from Chicago and Gillies from Toronto.