LA MALBAIE, QUEBEC – Bruising for a fight, U.S. President Donald Trump barreled into the Group of Seven summit Friday, confronting longtime U.S. allies over a burgeoning trade dispute and insisting Russia should be brought back into the fold.
Trump joined the leaders of major industrialized nations in an idyllic Canadian resort town after days of escalating conflict over new U.S. tariffs he slapped on imports of steel and aluminum. Facing pointed criticism from increasingly disillusioned allies, he punched back, uncowed by the growing global outcry.
“Look, all of these countries have been taking advantage of the United States on trade,” Trump told reporters as he left the White House, repeating his long-standing complaints about trade deficits and tariffs. He declared: “We have to straighten it out.”
However, Trump did seek to lower the temperature after his arrival. He bantered easily with Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, joking that the neighboring leader had “agreed to cut all tariffs and all trade barriers.” And he emphasized a “good relationship” with French President Emmanuel Macron, saying they sometimes have a “little test” on trade, but predicting a positive outcome.
Still, the fundamental differences remained clear. Trump again railed against trade deficits with other countries and repeated that he may pursue separate negotiations with Canada and Mexico to replace the North American Free Trade Agreement.
Asked if Trudeau was upset he’d be leaving Canada early, Trump joked, “He’s happy.”
Macron said there had been “open and direct” discussions, adding that he thought there was a way to get a “win-win” outcome on trade, though details remained unclear.
A French official said that the U.S. and European Union will establish a dialogue on trade within the next two weeks, signaling a modest step forward for bitterly divided allies at the summit.
“The principle of a dialogue was agreed this afternoon,” the French official told reporters. “Everyone agreed, including President Trump.”
While G7 leaders confronted Trump with a slew of data on imports and exports in a bid to sway his thinking, Trump countered his own numbers and held his position that the United States was at a disadvantage on international trade, an official who followed the talks said.
German Chancellor Angela Merkel on Friday floated an idea to set up a way to resolve trade disputes between the United States and its allies. An official described Merkel’s suggestion as a “shared assessment and dialogue” mechanism, but gave no further details. It was unclear if the technical talks were part of her initiative.
The proposal was supported by other leaders present, the official said. European Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker offered to visit Washington for an assessment of EU-U.S. trade to help resolve the dispute, an official said.
Before arriving at the meeting of the group, which some suggest Trump is pushing from the G7 into “G6 plus one,” he further stirred the pot by asking why Russia was excluded.
“They should let Russia come back in because we should have Russia at the negotiating table,” he said.
Russia was ousted from the elite group in 2014 as punishment for President Vladimir Putin’s annexation of Crimea and support for pro-Russian separatists in Ukraine. In the U.S., special counsel Robert Mueller is investigating whether Trump’s campaign colluded with Russia in a bid to sway the 2016 presidential election in his favor.
Canadian Foreign Minister Chrystia Freeland said the Russia issue “hasn’t been raised around the G7 table,” though she said there have been “some direct conversations in bilateral meetings.” She added “there are no grounds whatsoever for bringing Russia with its current behavior back into the G7.”
In Paris, Macron’s office said it wouldn’t make sense and pointed out that the latest country to impose economic sanctions on Russia was the U.S.
Italy’s new premier, Giuseppe Conte, tweeted that he agreed with Trump, saying: “Russia should go back into the G8. In the interest of all.”
European Council President Donald Tusk was not convinced.
“Let’s leave seven as it is,” he said. “It’s a lucky number.”
Russia seemed unconcerned. State news agencies quoted Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov as saying, “We are putting the emphasis on other formats.”
Despite the tension, the president was greeted cordially by Trudeau as he arrived at the annual gathering, held this year at a picturesque Quebec resort.
During the opening session over lunch, Prime Minister Shinzo Abe explained Japan’s stance to seek growth through multilateral trade frameworks, including the Trans-Pacific Partnership free trade agreement, according to a senior Japanese official.
The topical issue of Trump’s new metal tariffs will likely be discussed later in the day, the official also said.
In a move reflecting Trump’s “America First” trade policy, Washington invoked global tariffs of 25 percent on steel and 10 percent on aluminum in March, citing the need to defend “national security.”
The administration initially exempted Argentina, Australia, Brazil, Canada, the European Union, Mexico and South Korea from the duties, but imposed the tariffs on Canada, the European Union and Mexico last week, prompting retaliatory measures from the allies.
After a gathering of G7 finance ministers last week at the Canadian ski resort of Whistler, a summary statement written by Canada condemned the U.S. protectionist policies, and French Finance Minister Bruno Le Maire said the meeting became a “G6 plus one.”
In the afternoon talks, Abe was expected to tell other participants that it is necessary for the G7 to come together to maintain the free trade rules it has developed, according to Japanese officials.
He is also likely to underline that imposing punitive trade tariffs and their retaliatory measures would not advance the interests of any of the countries, the officials added.
Trump showed up late and will leave early on Saturday, heading to Singapore for his meeting with North Korean leader Kim Jong Un. He spent Friday participating in the rituals of the G7, including the formal greeting by host Trudeau, a group photo in front of the sparkling St. Lawrence River and a working lunch of Arctic char and buckwheat salad.
Over the course of his presidency, Trump has inflamed allies with his isolationist policies, including withdrawing the U.S. from the Paris climate accord and the international Iran nuclear agreement. Under Trump, the United States has abandoned its traditional role in the G7 as an advocate for freer global trade, instead pushing more protectionist policies.
“The rules-based international order is being challenged, not by the usual suspects but by its main architect and guarantor: the United States,” Tusk said.
Relations have hit such a low point that a key question now is whether the seven countries can agree on a joint statement of priorities at the conclusion of the meeting. Macron said Thursday on Twitter, “The American President may not mind being isolated, but neither do we mind signing a 6 country agreement if need be.”
Trump said he thinks the group will produce a joint statement. But due to the lack of consensus among the group, it is highly unlikely that a joint communique will be issued when the summit concludes on Saturday, G7 officials said.
Ottawa will instead release a chair’s summary of the meeting.
Prior to leaving Washington, Trump appeared unenthusiastic about the summit, complaining to aides about having to attend, particularly with his Singapore sit-down with Kim right around the corner. On Friday morning, he appeared in no hurry to leave for Canada, walking out of the White House more than half an hour late and answering questions from reporters for nearly 20 minutes.