White House works to inject stateliness into a virtual visit from Justin Trudeau


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In-person visits from foreign leaders are still off-limits as the novel coronavirus continues to rage. So Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau will beam into the West Wing from Ottawa, his bearded visage positioned next to Biden on a large screen as each man does his best to replicate the traditional choreography of a White House bilateral meeting.

There won’t be a handshake. But there will be opening remarks and a photo-op of the men sitting next to each other. The meeting between the two leaders will later expand into a session with Cabinet members, including the secretaries of State, Defense, Homeland Security and Transportation, who will speak to their counterparts over video-conference. And to conclude, Trudeau’s face will pop up again from the State Floor of the White House, where he will deliver a joint statement alongside an in-the-flesh Biden.

It’s not necessarily how Biden, who puts a premium on cultivating personal relationships with foreign counterparts, might prefer to conduct his debut bilateral meeting. But with the US-Canada border still closed and the administration intent on modeling its own pandemic guidance, the virtual meeting will have to do.

The two leaders are expected to produce a “road map” for reinvigorating collaboration between their countries that will guide areas such as climate change and the economy, administration officials said, characterizing the result as superior to the static joint statement or communiqué that is the usual result of a bilateral meeting.

Sticky issues of cross-border trade are expected to arise. And the leaders will likely discuss China, including the detention of two Canadians who were imprisoned there after Canada arrested a Huawei executive.

The notion of meeting remotely is hardly new for most Americans, who are about to enter a second year of video-calls and virtual get-togethers. But former President Donald Trump had mostly ignored social distancing guidelines and continued welcoming foreign leaders amid the pandemic.

Trudeau’s will be the first “virtual bilateral meeting” convened at the White House.

“They’re not going to be in person, but the two leaders get along very well, have great rapport, so we wanted to create a smaller session so the two of them could really have that experience that they would normally have in the Oval,” a senior administration official said on Monday, previewing a meeting that is expected to center on the two countries’ economic ties, combating the pandemic and addressing climate change.

The pitfalls of a virtual diplomacy were on display last week when Group of 7 leaders met on a video call. The host, British Prime Minister Boris Johnson, had to ask Chancellor Angela Merkel to mute her line when mumbling in German interrupted his opening remarks.

Senior US administration officials said they wanted to elevate the Biden-Trudeau event into something more than just a high-level Zoom, preserving some of the optics and stateliness of an official visit from a foreign leader, even if the leader himself is sitting in another country almost 600 miles away.

“We’re really trying to innovate in the virtual space to make sure that we’re establishing that personal connection that the President enjoys with a lot of leaders, but then, of course, creating that environment for them to really roll up their sleeves and talk to these issues in detail as the President likes to do,” the official said.

Biden and Trudeau have already spoken by telephone and have known each other for years. One of Biden’s final trips as vice president was to attend a state dinner held in his honor in Ottawa; during his toast, Biden recounted the call he received from Trudeau’s father Pierre — then serving as prime minister himself — when his first wife and daughter died in a car accident.

The relationship between the two countries is not without its irritants. Trudeau expressed his disappointment that Biden was canceling the Keystone XL pipeline, which would transport oil from Alberta across the US-Canada border. Officials said ahead of the meeting that the decision was final.

Trudeau is expected to press Biden on making more Covid-19 vaccines available for Canadians. Biden has not reversed a Trump-era executive order that blocks vaccine exports, meaning Canada is relying on Pfizer doses produced in Europe rather than those produced in neighboring Michigan. Officials said Biden was focused on “making sure every American is vaccinated” but wants to discuss ways of working together to combat the virus.

Canada also hopes Biden will make an exception for his “Buy American” provision that are meant to ensure US taxpayer dollars are spent on domestic companies rather than going abroad.

But by-and-large Biden and Trudeau are riding the same wave-length, at least compared to Trump, who enacted a combative trade agenda and personally insulted Trudeau on several occasions.

His sole trip to Canada, for a G7 summit in the northern woods of Quebec, ended abruptly and bitterly. As he flew away on Air Force One, he called Trudeau “very dishonest and weak” on Twitter and rescinded his signature from the meeting’s concluding document.

A frosty but businesslike relationship followed until 2019, when Trudeau was caught on camera gossiping about Trump with Johnson, French President Emmanuel Macron and Britain’s Princess Anne during a reception at Buckingham Palace. Trump declared him “two-faced.”

That is not likely to occur Tuesday.

“Nearly priority of the Biden administration is one where we have value alignment and the space for collaboration with Canada,” an official said ahead of the talks. “We share one of the strongest and deepest friendships between any two countries in the world.”

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