President Donald Trump praised the "outstanding" trade relationship between the United States and Canada Monday, saying he would only be "tweaking" it going forward.
The comments were received positively by Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, who came to the United States seeking to ensure Canada was not crippled as Trump re-negotiates the North American Free Trade Agreement. The neighboring leaders, polar opposites in nearly every way, took up the thorny subjects of trade and immigration at their first face to face meeting Monday.
"We have a very outstanding trade relationship with Canada. We'll be tweaking it," Trump told reporters of the trade relationship. "We'll be doing certain things that are going to benefit both of our countries. It's a much less severe situation than what's taking place on the southern border."
At a joint news conference after their meetings, the two emphasized their shared goals. Trump pledged to work with Canada "in pursuit of our many shared interests." Trudeau spoke of a special bond and the "deep abiding respect" between the two countries, though he also said that "relationships between neighbors are pretty complex."
While the two leaders stressed shared interests, their contrasting views were also on display. Responding to questions from reporters, Trump defended his refugee and immigration orders, saying that "we cannot let the wrong people in." Trudeau, on the other hand, said Canada continues to "pursue our policies of openness."
Trudeau later noted that there have been times when the two countries "have differed in our approaches." But he said "the last thing Canadians expect is for me to come down and lecture another country on how they chose to govern themselves."
On trade, Trump said he would be "tweaking" the relationship with Canada, but said "it's a much less severe situation than what's happening on the southern border." He also noted the "outstanding trade relationship with Canada." Those were likely welcome comments for Canadians concerned that they could be hurt as Trump targets Mexico in a re-negotiation of the North American Free Trade Agreement.
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 advisor 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.