U.S. President Donald Trump says he refused to meet with Prime Minister Justin Trudeau ahead of the U.S.’ latest deadline for a NAFTA deal because of Canadian intransigence at the bargaining table, though Ottawa denied Mr. Trudeau made any meeting request.
The two leaders spent the past three days at the United Nations but, aside from a single awkward handshake before a group luncheon, the pair did not meet. Asked at a news conference on Wednesday whether he rejected a sit-down with Mr. Trudeau, Mr. Trump was blunt.
“Yeah, I did. Because his tariffs are too high and he doesn’t seem to want to move and I’ve told him ‘forget about it,” Mr. Trump said. “We’re very unhappy with the negotiations and the negotiating style of Canada. We don’t like their representative very much.”
The President did not specify which Canadian “representative” he was referring to, and the White House did not respond to a request for clarification. Foreign Minister Chrystia Freeland, who has sharply criticized Mr. Trump’s trade policies as part of an international assault on the global order by authoritarians and nationalists, has been leading Canada’s negotiating efforts.
Mr. Trudeau’s office denied that the Prime Minister asked to sit down with the President this week.
“No meeting was requested. We don’t have any comment beyond that,” his spokeswoman, Chantal Gagnon wrote in an e-mail.
The United States has said it will send Congress the text of a proposed new North American free-trade agreement that includes only the United States and Mexico if Canada does not reach a deal by Sunday. It is planning a formal deal-signing by the end of November.
The Trump administration has previously set at least four deadlines to conclude NAFTA talks, only to miss all of them and then continue negotiating.
Mr. Trump on Wednesday reiterated his central complaint about trade with Canada, slamming the “300-per-cent tariffs” the country uses to keep out dairy imports. And he again threatened to slap tariffs on Canadian-made cars if there is not a deal.
“We're thinking about just taxing cars coming in from Canada. That's the motherlode, that's the big one,” he said. “Canada has treated us very badly. They’ve treated our farmers in Wisconsin and New York State and a lot of other states very badly.”
Earlier in the day, Mr. Trudeau confirmed that protection from Mr. Trump’s proposed auto tariffs – as well as the lifting of the steel and aluminum tariffs he imposed in June – must be part of a new NAFTA. Ms. Freeland had long insisted NAFTA and tariffs were separate issues, but The Globe and Mail has previously reported that Canada has demanded tariff relief at the bargaining table.
“One of the things in my many conversations with President Trump on the issue of [Section] 232 tariffs … was his insistence that, if we renegotiate NAFTA, if we get to a NAFTA deal, there will be no need to worry about these other things. That has been something that he has said a few times,” the Prime Minister said during a news conference.
Mr. Trump has invoked Section 232, a previously obscure provision in U.S. trade law that allows the president to levy tariffs for “national-security” reasons.
David MacNaughton, Canada’s ambassador to Washington, also said Wednesday that tariff protection is a prerequisite for a NAFTA deal.
“If you can’t have some curb on the arbitrary use of tariffs under the guise of national security with a member of [the North American Aerospace Defense Command] and somebody who is your closest defence partner, then I don’t think it’s much of agreement,” he told a Politico event in Toronto.
Mr. Trudeau also insisted he was unconcerned by the looming NAFTA deadline.
“We will keep working as long as it takes to get to the right deal for Canada,” Mr. Trudeau said. “A broad range of paths are ahead of us.”
Thomas Bollyky, a former U.S. trade negotiator, said there is nothing legally stopping Canada from joining the trade pact after Congress receives the text. The decision will fall to congressional leaders, who are generally supportive of free trade and keeping Canada in the pact.
“It will be up to Mitch McConnell and Paul Ryan and the chairpersons of the relevant committees to decide whether to let Canada in. I suspect that they will be motivated to do so,” Mr. Bollyky said, referring to the Senate Majority Leader and the Speaker, respectively.
In the past, Mr. Trump and U.S. Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross have said the tariffs are leverage during negotiations and they will not be imposed if there is a NAFTA deal.
But U.S. Trade Representative Robert Lighthizer on Tuesday said he had changed his mind on this point and now planned to finish NAFTA talks first before negotiating on tariffs.
“On steel and aluminum … we started off originally trying to have some kind of an overall agreement,” he said. “I think our view is that now we’ll turn to that as the next stage.”
Mr. Trudeau also tried to play down is apparent snub from Mr. Trump. The pair shared an awkward handshake on Tuesday, when Mr. Trudeau approached Mr. Trump before a group luncheon. The President briefly took his hand but did not rise from his seat.
“I don’t think there’s anything to read into it,” Mr. Trudeau said of the tepid greeting, adding he was just making the rounds of the table. “It was an interaction like so many are in the UN – quick but cordial. There are all sorts of opportunities for me to speak with President Trump and that was not the time.”