As Trudeau arrives at White House, Trump hints at bilateral trade with Canada

WASHINGTON _ Donald Trump has welcomed Prime Minister Justin Trudeau to the White House by hinting at the possibility of a free trade deal directly with America’s northern neighbour, should ongoing NAFTA talks collapse.

But the U.S. president also said it’s too early to give up on efforts to renegotiate the North American Free Trade Agreement with Canada and Mexico.

“It’s possible we won’t be able to reach a deal with one or the other,” Trump said, a poker-faced Trudeau seated at his side. “In the meantime, we’ll make a deal with one, but I think we have a chance to do something very creative that’s good for Canada, Mexico and the United States.”

Trump was speaking from the Oval Office at the outset of Wednesday’s meeting with Trudeau, whose visit coincides with the start of a fourth round of NAFTA talks in nearby Alexandria, Va.

It’s no secret that the president is not a fan of NAFTA, but Wednesday’s remarks suggest he’s open to the possibility of a bilateral trade deal with Canada.

“We’ll see what happens, we have a tough negotiation,” he said.

Trudeau, meanwhile, was far less bearish on the fate of NAFTA, saying the economies of the two countries have long been closely intertwined.

“We have a good partnership and there’s always ways to improve it, always issues we need to talk through,” he said.

The prime minister’s arrival in Washington comes amid early signs of trouble in the talks, with big business groups now expressing fear the quarter-century-old deal could disappear.

Earlier Wednesday, Trudeau held discussions with the House of Representatives’ influential Ways and Means committee, one of two bodies of U.S. lawmakers that are helping negotiators put forward the U.S. positions on trade.

He joined the committee to warm applause and expressions of optimism about the deal from both the committee’s Republican chair and the ranking Democrat member.

The committee is dedicated to making sure the negotiations are successful, said Rep. Kevin Brady, the committee chair, who asked for Trudeau’s help in keeping an open mind.

“We all want this agreement to be a model for future trade deals,” Brady said.

The latest round of NAFTA talks kicked off with a discussion of government procurement, already a thorny subject _ U.S. negotiators suggested during the last round in Ottawa that they want to limit Canadian and Mexican access to U.S. projects.

From there, discussions are scheduled to move onto developing remedies for trade disputes and the contentious subject of agriculture on Saturday.

Trudeau told Fortune magazine’s Most Powerful Women gala on Tuesday night he sees room to not only modernize the deal, but to make it more progressive as well.

“Putting progressive elements into trade deals _ labour protections, environmental protections _ actually helps us make the case for trade and reassure people that the benefits of trade will be distributed more fairly and not just to the small number of people who’ve always benefited from it in the past,” he said.

He returned to those themes Wednesday during an earlier roundtable discussion with two organizations devoted to empowering women and girls around the world. Participants included senior female executives with Google and Twitter, organizations including the Nike Foundation, McKinsey and JPMorgan Chase and Arianna Huffington, founder of the Huffington Post.

Trudeau noted the diverse backgrounds and strengths in the group, but said they too often work in isolation.

“We don’t necessarily convene a broad enough group to reach out beyond where we can touch ourselves and being able to break down these silos and pull people together is really important,” he said.

“How we empower women and girls around the world is going to make the defining difference in whether we make it as a 21st century species or not.”