WASHINGTON – President Donald Trump and Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau launched a joint effort to advance women in the workplace Monday, then plunged into the thornier issue of trade in North America.
The neighboring leaders, polar opposites in nearly every way, were taking up the subject in their first face-to-face meeting, with Trudeau eager to build a relationship with the new U.S. president.
After a series of meetings, Trump and Trudeau released a joint statement, in which they stressed their “profound shared economic interests” and promised to “work tirelessly to provide growth and jobs for both countries.”
Trump greeted Trudeau with a firm handshake as he arrived at the White House on a blustery morning. The two posed silently before reporters, until Trump suggested they shake hands for the cameras. Trudeau did bring a personal gift — a photo of Trump with Trudeau’s father, the late Canadian Prime Minister Pierre Trudeau.
Trump said he knew and respected Pierre Trudeau and would keep the photo in a “very special place.”
At a roundtable discussion with female executives from the United States and Canada, Trump and Trudeau announced a task force focused on women in the workforce. Trump said it was important to ensure the economy is a place where “women can work and thrive.” Trudeau stressed that women have had to overcome barriers to succeed in business.
Trump’s daughter, Ivanka Trump, was in attendance at the meeting and helped recruit participants and set the agenda. The high-profile meeting is evidence of her rising policy influence.
Trudeau, age 45, and Trump, age 70, have vastly different outlooks of the world.
Trudeau is a liberal who champions free trade and has welcomed 40,000 Syrian refugees. He calls himself a feminist and his Cabinet is 50 percent women. Trump has few women in his Cabinet. He has taken a protectionist stance on trade and wants to crack down on the inflow of migrants and refugees.
Trump’s order to temporarily halt entry into the U.S. by people from seven predominantly Muslim nations, which is tied up in court, might come up during his bilateral meeting with Trudeau. But Trudeau is expected to focus on common economic interests.
Relations with the U.S. are crucial as more than 75 percent of Canada’s exports go to the U.S., while 18 percent of U.S. exports go to Canada. There are fears among Canadians that they could be hurt as Trump targets Mexico in a re-negotiation of the North American Free Trade Agreement.
Trudeau’s close cooperation with Trump and the first daughter on women in business could ease some worries among Canadians that the U.S. president will enact protectionist measures that could hurt the Canadian economy. It could also alleviate some fears that Trump will be as combative with Trudeau as he has been with the leaders of Mexico and Australia.
A Canadian official said Trudeau’s administration had suggested the task force, because the prime minister considers the issue of working women an important part of his agenda and economic growth plan.
“It’s a smart thing if Canada proposed this,” said Nelson Wiseman, a professor at the University of Toronto. “It takes attention off of NAFTA. And from Trump’s point of view, it contributes to softening Trump’s image, and he’s got a problem with women.”
Roland Paris, a former senior foreign policy to Trudeau, said the prime minister needs to build a relationship with Trump to ensure Canada is not shut out economically.
“The overriding priority will be for Canada to maintain secure and reliable access to the U.S. market and the supply chains that crisscross the border,” Paris said.
Trudeau has been preparing for the Trump meeting for months. He will also meet with legislative leaders on Capitol Hill.
Ivanka Trump meanwhile got a plum spot at America’s highest table Monday, attending her father’s meeting with Trudeau and businesswomen from both countries.
She sat next to the 45-year-old Canadian leader in the White House Cabinet Room, and opened the discussion after both leaders had spoken.
The appearance comes amid questions over the separation of Trump family businesses from the official roles of the president and his relatives.
Trump is the first president in modern times to refuse to release his tax returns or divest from his business interests — choosing instead to put his sons in charge.
His daughter also has significant business interests that have become the focus for government ethics watchdogs.
Trump last week tweeted that Ivanka had been “treated so unfairly” by Nordstrom, an upscale department store chain that dropped her fashion brand.
And a key Trump aide is facing possible investigation after pitching the president’s daughter’s fashion brand on television.
Speaking with the White House seal clearly visible over her shoulder, Kellyanne Conway gave Ivanka Trump’s clothing a rave review during a Fox interview, urging shoppers to “go buy Ivanka’s stuff.”