Politics·Analysis

Justin Trudeau's visit a moment of calm in tumultuous Trump White House

With Ronald Reagan's words setting the tone, Justin Trudeau meets U.S. President Donald Trump. Canada's prime minister would be respectful - but distinguishing characteristics would be hard to miss.

Tone of Washington visit respectful - but the 2 leaders' distinguishing characteristics were hard to miss

U.S. President Donald Trump gestures as Prime Minister Justin Trudeau signs the guest book in the Roosevelt Room of the White House, in Washington on Monday. (Sean Kilpatrick/Canadian Press)

At the outset of his White House visit Monday, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau inscribed the guest book in the White House's Roosevelt Room with a paraphrase of words Ronald Reagan delivered to a joint session of Parliament in 1987.

In the full passage, the U.S. Republican president observed that, "As two proud and independent peoples, there is much that distinguishes us one from the other, but there is also much that we share: a vast continent, with its common hardships and uncommon duties, generations of mutual respect and support, and an abiding friendship that grows ever stronger."

Canada and the United States, the president observed then, were "each built by immigrant refugees from tyranny and want." And from them came a commitment to freedom, human rights and democratic government.

Back then, the existential threat was nuclear war. But then Reagan would also touch on matters of shared prosperity, free and fair trade and protectionism. He would be heckled by New Democrats who disagreed with his foreign policy.

Nearly 30 years later, Trudeau was in Washington, D.C., to meet Donald Trump, and Reagan's words would be a fitting summation of the day. The prime minister would be respectful. But the two leaders' distinguishing characteristics would be hard to miss.

About that travel ban

The moment of widely expected tension arrived about 15 minutes into their joint appearance in the golden-draped East Room, when Trudeau was asked to comment on the reasoning for Trump's decision to ban travellers from seven Muslim-majority countries.

My role and our responsibility is to continue to govern in such a way that reflects Canadians' approach and be a positive example in the world.- Prime Minister Justin Trudeau

It is the most obvious line of demarcation between the two men, and the prime minister was ready with a response, noting first the two countries' long history as neighbours and shared sacrifice on the battlefields of the world wars, Korea and Afghanistan.

"But there have been times where we have differed in our approaches, and that's always been done firmly and respectfully," he said. "The last thing Canadians expect is for me to come down and lecture another country on how they should be governing themselves."

The prime minister might underestimate the desire of some Canadians to see the president publicly upbraided.

But this philosophy of Trudeau's seems to at least predate Trump. A year ago, speaking with a group of young leaders at the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland, Trudeau argued that Canada does not impose its views, but rather models its solutions for the world. 

The world, he suggested, needed more of that unimposing approach.

"My role and our responsibility," he concluded on Monday, "is to continue to govern in such a way that reflects Canadians' approach and be a positive example in the world."

With that, the moment passed.

Canadian PM and U.S. president speak after meetings in the Oval Office 25:50

The handshake summit

A few hours later, the Canadian delegation departed Washington, having played a significant part in what seemed to be Trump's most uneventful day so far as president — at least until Trump's national security advisor, Michael Flynn, resigned amid concerns about his interactions with the Russian ambassador.

Which is not to say there weren't still fascinating things to scrutinize.

Things like handshakes, which became a point of interest in the wake of Japanese President Shinzo Abe's uncomfortable experience. For the record, Trudeau's physical interactions with the president were mostly unremarkable, though a grip-and-grin in the Oval Office did produce a photo that seemed to show Trudeau looking hesitantly at Trump's offered hand.

Trudeau's physical interactions with the president were mostly unremarkable, though this photo in the Oval Office seemed to show Trudeau looking hesitantly at Trump's offered hand. (Kevin Lamarque/Reuters)

Trudeau's gifts for the president included a framed picture of Trump as he helped fete Pierre Trudeau at a dinner in 1981, a neatly chosen attempt at connection. During their first phone call after last fall's election, Trump had mentioned the time he met Justin Trudeau's father, and so Trudeau's office tracked down a photo. 

After a session in the Oval Office, the prime minister sat beside Ivanka Trump — the prime minister pulling out the daughter's seat and pushing it in before taking his own — as Trudeau and Donald Trump convened a first meeting of the Canada-United States Council for the Advancement of Women Entrepreneurs and Business Leaders.

Trudeau, of course, is an avowed feminist. Trump, on the other hand, was famously recorded on tape talking about how he groped women. But his daughter has been keen to talk about child care and maternity leave. 

It seemed a remarkable bit of statecraft and stagecraft to use the day to put them around the cabinet table in the White House to discuss female empowerment.

Later, in closing his prepared remarks at their joint news conference, Trudeau quoted Winston Churchill's praise for the Canadian-American relationship, invoking a leader whose bust Trump has prominently placed in the Oval Office.

Not quite a bromance

Trudeau and Trump are said to have gotten along well behind closed doors, but this is obviously not the kinship that the prime minister enjoyed with Barack Obama.

When Trudeau and the former president met last March, the first sentence of the resulting joint statement enthused that the two shared "a common vision" for a prosperous and sustainable economy.

Trump welcomes Trudeau at a news conference in the East Room of the White House. (Evan Vucci/Associated Press)

Trudeau and Trump merely "held their first official meeting" and "affirmed" a commitment to co-operate on the major challenges and issues of the day.

Obama and Trudeau devoted hundreds of words to the issue of climate change.

Trump and Trudeau didn't mention the issue explicitly (though Trudeau did work a mention of Brian Mulroney and Reagan's acid rain treaty into his opening remarks in the East Room).

According to a senior government source, there was some acknowledgment in private of the two leaders' differing perspectives on immigration. But the president is said to think highly of Canada's points-based system for selecting immigrants.

Before the media, Trudeau showed flashes of oratory, while Trump was typically heavy with adjectives.

Perhaps reassuring Canadians, the president spoke highly of Canada as an economic partner. On trade, Trump said he was only looking to tweak the Canadian portion of North American Free Trade Agreement.

Trudeau smiled and nodded along to Trump's kind words about the Canada-U.S. relationship, but stood more stoically when the president moved to darker commentary on subjects like immigration.

Of Trudeau's decision to refrain from lecturing, the senior government official raises a hypothetical: How would Canadians react if a president came to Ottawa and criticized the policies of a Canadian government?

That likely would not go over well. But the next four years might still test the extent and wisdom of Trudeau's own restraint.

In 1987, Reagan described the peaceful border between Canada and the United States as "a concrete, living lesson ... that the relations of free peoples ... will be marked by admiration, not hostility."

On the day that Justin Trudeau met Donald Trump, that still seemed basically to hold.

The highlights from Prime Minister Justin Trudeau's first visit to the White House since U.S President Donald Trump took office 1:32

About the Author

Aaron Wherry

Parliament Hill Bureau

Aaron Wherry has covered Parliament Hill since 2007 and has written for Maclean's, the National Post and the Globe and Mail. He is the author of Promise & Peril, a book about Justin Trudeau's years in power.