LA MALBAIE, Que. _ Donald Trump prefaced his arrival in Canada on Friday with a sharp jab at the G7 by calling for Russia’s reinstatement _ creating a chasm with his allies on one of their key security concerns.
Prior to boarding Air Force One, the U.S. president took to Twitter to deride Canada and Europe on a familiar topic: what he sees as their unfair trade practices.
But it was Trump’s pre-departure remarks on Russia that moved him squarely offside with most of his fellow G7 leaders, including his host Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, on one of their most serious, shared international security concerns.
“Why are we having a meeting without Russia in the meeting?” Trump said at the White House just before departing.
“They should let Russia come back in because we should have Russia at the negotiating table.”
In 2014, the then-G8 kicked Russia out of the club of powerful countries. Canada and its Western allies oppose the adventurism of Russian President Vladimir Putin over the Kremlin’s annexation of Ukraine’s Crimean Peninsula and for the ongoing fight between Russian-backed separatists in Ukraine’s east.
“We’ve always been clear that we should engage with Russia, but the phrase I’ve used is ‘engage but beware’,” British Prime Minister Theresa May told Sky News. “And let’s remember why the G8 became the G7 _ it was because Russia illegally annexed Crimea, and before any conversations of this sort can happen, we have to ensure that Russia is actually mending its ways and taking a different route.”
The Canadian government responded to Trump’s remark Friday by saying it’s not going to budge from its stance on Russia.
“Our position hasn’t changed,” Adam Austen, a spokesman for Foreign Affairs Minister Chrystia Freeland, said at the summit site in La Malbaie, Que.
Trump’s idea, however, did attract some G7 support Friday. Italy’s new populist prime minister sowed further uncertainty by tweeting his support for Trump’s position on Russia.
For their part, the Russians didn’t appear interested in Trump’s offer.
The Russian news agency Sputnik reported Kremlin spokesman Dmitriy Peskov’s response to Trump’s tweet: “Russia is focused on other formats, apart from the G7.”
But Trump’s musings on Russia throw into question a declaration that the G7 is considering in Charlevoix that would condemn meddling in western elections _ a statement that would have been aimed squarely at Russia.
For the past week, it was an open question in Ottawa whether Trump would actually show up, after he imposed heavy steel and aluminum tariffs against the other G7 members. The G7 leaders were planning to press him to lift those duties in their opening sessions Friday.
Those plans, as well as Trudeau’s carefully crafted agenda _ months in making _were thrown into disarray before Trump stepped off his plane in Bagotville, Que., making his debut on Canadian soil.
After arriving at the summit site, Trump greeted Trudeau and Sophie Gregoire Trudeau on the hotel’s sweeping lawn, which overlooks the mighty St. Lawrence River.
The leaders shook hands, chatted a little bit, posed for photos and then walked off _ just the two of them _ along a path that led around the side of the hotel.
The men showed no obvious signs of hard feelings on Friday, even though they had exchanged tough words publicly over their differences on trade issues.
In railing against Canadian trade policies, Trump accused Trudeau of being “indignant” on Twitter. Trudeau has called Trump’s tariffs “insulting.”
On Trump’s Russia remark earlier Friday, Italian Prime Minister Giuseppe Conte fuelled the disharmony amongst the G7 by tweeting his support for the U.S. president’s position.
“I agree with the President ?realDonaldTrump: Russia should go back into the G-8. In the interest of all.”
Conte, who heads a right-wing populist party, was making his international debut after he was appointed last week as a compromise candidate for prime minister to break a political deadlock since Italy’s March national election.
European Council President Donald Tusk raised questions about Conte’s commitment to that idea. He said he has met Conte and considers his position on Russia to be completely in-line with the common European line, which considers Russia’s breach of its western border to be an illegal act.
Tusk expressed broader concern about Trump’s opposition to the international rules-based order, because it “is being challenged, quite surprisingly, not by the usual suspects but by its main architect and guarantor, the U.S.”
The European Union is also a full member of the G7, so Tusk is part of the leaders’ meetings with Trump, where they are trying to persuade the president to stop attacking multilateralism.
“We will not stop trying to convince our American friends and President Trump that undermining this order makes no sense at all because it would only play into the hands of those who seek a new post-West order where liberal democracy and fundamental freedoms would cease to exist,” said Tusk.
Despite the current G7 turmoil, Tusk said more unites the group than divides it.
“It is far too early for our adversaries and enemies to celebrate.”
Trudeau is hosting the world’s most powerful countries at the two-day summit in La Malbaie, in Quebec’s Charlevoix region, Trump is not expected to stay until the end.
He is set to depart before Saturday’s final session on climate change and fly to Singapore for a much-anticipated summit with the leader of North Korea.
Trudeau has worked hard to find common ground with the unpredictable president, but the personal bond he has tried to forge has been strained.
“We will continue to demonstrate that we’re interested in defending Canadian interests and, on top of that, it turns out I’m defending American interests because these tariffs they’re putting forward are going to hurt American workers as well,” Trudeau said Thursday.
“So, if I can get the president to actually realize that what he’s doing is counterproductive for his own goals as well, then perhaps we can move forward in a smarter way.”
_ With files from The Associated Press