Trump offers help with Canadian detainees in China in upbeat visit with Trudeau

WASHINGTON — It was third time lucky for Justin Trudeau in Washington on Thursday as President Donald Trump welcomed his “friend,” the hard-working Canadian prime minister, and offered to help him out of jam with China.

One year after Trump insulted Trudeau following the G7 in Quebec — dishonest, weak, meek, mild is how Trump described Trudeau on Twitter — the president displayed a statesman’s grace in welcoming the Canadian leader.

Trump signalled Thursday he will raise the issue of two Canadians detained in China when he meets with the Chinese president next week. And even though he held to his tough talk on tariffs, refusing to rule out their use in the future, he praised his North American neighbours for crafting an excellent new trade agreement.

The aura of restraint that Trump projected was part of his broader response to a tense set of developments in the Middle East. His administration was seized with responding to Iran’s Revolutionary Guard shooting down a U.S. surveillance drone. The move sparked competing and unverifiable accounts over where the downing occurred and deepened a conflict between the U.S. and Iran — but Trump was adamant the plane was in international waters because the U.S. has “scientifically” documented that fact.

Trump, however, held tough on his favourite negotiating weapon — he wouldn’t rule out the threat of using tariffs, if needed, even after the new North American trade agreement comes into force. But he suggested that the worst of past battles with his nearest neighbours might be in the past.

“He’s been a friend of mine. We’ve worked hard together. We worked, in particular, on the USMCA,” Trump said, using the acronym for his preferred name for the new trade pact, the United States-Mexico-Canada Agreement.

Speaking to reporters as he and Trudeau sat in the Oval Office, Trump vowed to do whatever he could do to help Michael Spavor and Michael Kovrig when he meets China’s President Xi Jinping at next week’s G20 leaders’ summit in Japan, if Trudeau — as expected — asked for his help.

The two Canadians have been languishing behind bars in China since shortly after Canada arrested high-tech executive Meng Wanzhou late last year at the behest of U.S. authorities. The RCMP arrested Meng last December in Vancouver, where she awaits extradition south of the border to face allegations of fraud in violating Iran sanctions.

Trudeau doesn’t have a planned meeting with Xi, unlike Trump. But the president said: “I’ll represent him well, I will tell you.”

“Our people are actually speaking now. We’ll see what happens, but anything I can do to help Canada I will be doing . . . I would, at Justin’s request, I will actually bring it up.”

Trudeau’s trip to Washington, including his third Oval Office visit since Trump assumed power in 2017, was aimed primarily at pushing the new North American trade agreement over the finish line in both countries.

“It’s an opportunity for us, as you say, to keep talking about how we worked hard to build a great trade deal that’s good for Canadian workers, good for American workers, good for Mexican workers as well. We’re moving forward on the ratification process aligned with you,” Trudeau told Trump.

Canada has started the ratification process, with legislation making its way through Parliament. Lawmakers in Mexico voted Wednesday in a landslide to ratify the deal, which U.S. Trade Representative Robert Lighthizer called “a crucial step forward.”

Trump needed to persuade his Democratic opponents in the House of Representatives — in particular Speaker Nancy Pelosi — to allow the start of the American ratification of the USMCA.

Pelosi and her fellow Democrats want stronger enforcement mechanisms for the deal’s new labour and environmental provisions.

Trump sounded upbeat in the Oval Office, saying he expected Pelosi and the Democrats would “do the right thing” and back the deal in Congress.

“Let’s see what happens, but I really believe that Nancy Pelosi and the House will approve it, I think the Senate will approve it rapidly. It’s going to be very bipartisan,” the president said.

“I think Nancy Pelosi is going to do the right thing.”

Trump also said it was a “terrific thing” that Trudeau was making the rounds on Capitol Hill.

When Trudeau arrived on Capitol Hill, Pelosi, the veteran California Democrat, said she looked forward to a “lively discussion” on global security issues and the economic relationship between the two countries, particularly regarding trade.

“Canada is our trusted neighbour. Our relationship is a warm one and it is an honour again to have the prime minister visit,” she said.

A planned meeting between Trudeau and McConnell was postponed after Trump invited congressional leaders to a White House briefing on Iran scheduled on Thursday afternoon.

Trump and Trudeau said they planned to discuss Iran after the Revolutionary Guard shot down a U.S. surveillance drone on Thursday morning. The Guard said the drone was over Iranian airspace and U.S. said it was over the international Strait of Hormuz.

“Iran made a big mistake. This drone was in international waters, clearly, we have it all documented, it’s documented scientifically, not just words, and they made a very bad mistake,” Trump said.

Trump added later that he believed that it might have been a rogue commander who made an error by shooting the down the unarmed drone.

“It would have made a big difference, let me tell you” if the plane had a pilot.

Asked how the U.S. would respond, Trump said, “let’s just see what happens. … It’s all going to work out.”

Canadian soldiers are in nearby Iraq as part of a NATO effort to train Iraqi military forces.

“Obviously, we’re very concerned about the escalation by Iran recently,” Trudeau said.

“We look forward to discussing with our closest ally their perspectives on this and how we can move forward as an international community.”

Mike Blanchfield, The Canadian Press