The coronavirus pandemic is forcing President Joe Biden to alter another first for his administration: the typically formal White House meeting with a foreign counterpart.
Biden will play host to Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau on Tuesday for the first bilateral meeting of his presidency, but he will do it virtually.
In pre-pandemic times, such a meeting would have been held with fanfare: Biden welcoming the Canadian prime minister with great pomp 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 are foregoing the typical protocol and holding their talks by video conference.
U.S. presidents traditionally invite the Canadian prime minister for their first meeting with a world leader. White House officials said that they are still trying to offer a touch of stagecraft for the meeting.
The two leaders — Biden in the Oval Office in Washington and Trudeau in the prime minister’s office in Ottawa — will first deliver brief remarks in front of the media at the start of their meeting.
Then Biden, Secretary of State Antony Blinken and national security adviser Jake Sullivan will hold a 45-minute session with Trudeau, Deputy Prime Minister and Finance Minister Chrystia Freeland, Foreign Affairs Minister Marc Garneau and Canada’s ambassador to the United States, Kirsten Hillman, according to a senior Biden administration official who previewed the meeting.
That meeting will be followed by an extended session that will include Vice President Kamala Harris as well as several of Biden’s Cabinet-level advisers and Trudeau’s ministers.
The agenda includes the two countries’ COVID-19 responses, climate change, economic issues and more. Biden and Trudeau plan to deliver joint closing statements at the end of their meeting. The White House said the leaders also plan to issue a “road map” outlining how the neighboring countries will work together to fight COVID-19, curb climate emissions and pursue other shared priorities.
It was unclear whether Trudeau would again raise with the Democratic president the idea of allowing Canada, which is struggling to vaccinate its population, to buy vaccines from pharmaceutical giant Pfizer’s manufacturing facility in Michigan. Canada currently is getting vaccines shipped from a Pfizer plant in Belgium.
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 for now remains focused on first inoculating the U.S. population, according to the senior administration official.
Another area of concern for Trudeau is the “Buy American” executive order that Biden signed during his first week in office. It’s 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 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,” such as when there is an overwhelming national security, humanitarian or emergency need in the U.S. The issue is crucial to Canada since the U.S. accounts for about 75% of its exports.
Asked if Canada may get a waiver from Biden’s “Buy American” order, White House press secretary Jen Psaki said Monday that “no changes are anticipated.”
Trudeau is also expected to again raise concerns to Biden about two Canadians imprisoned in China in apparent retaliation for Canada’s arrest of a top Huawei executive, according to a senior Canadian official familiar with the prime minister’s preparation for the call.
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. Biden is anticipating that Trudeau will raise the issue and plans to make clear that the White House will be as “supportive as possible to help secure the release” of the two Canadian men, according to the senior Biden administration official.
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.
Biden also used the call last month to explain his decision to halt building of the Keystone XL pipeline. The long-disputed project was supported by Trudeau and projected to carry some 800,000 barrels of oil a day from the tar sands of Alberta to the Texas Gulf Coast, passing through Montana, South Dakota, Nebraska, Kansas and Oklahoma.
Despite Trudeau’s disappointment with Biden’s decision to cancel the project, Canadian government officials said the call went well between the two leaders, who have known each other for years.
Canadian officials expect Trudeau to have a far more productive relationship with Biden than he did with Donald Trump. The Republican president, in a fit of pique in 2018, took to Twitter following a meeting of the Group of Seven industrialized nations to malign the prime minister as “dishonest and weak” after Trudeau voiced objections to Trump raising tariffs on steel and aluminum from Canada, Mexico and the European Union.