WASHINGTON — Despite sharp differences on immigration, refugees, trade and climate change, President Donald Trump and Prime Minister Justin Trudeau of Canada struck a cordial tone in their first meeting on Monday, alternating between attempting to bridge those gaps and steering clear of them.
Trump has called for a halt to the admission of refugees, saying that terrorists might slip into the United States among them, while Trudeau has held out Canada as a haven for refugees, particularly people who have fled the war in Syria, publicly hugging newly arrived families.
But when asked at a White House news conference whether he now sees the northern U.S. border with Canada as insecure, Trump skirted the question, speaking instead of his administration's efforts to deport criminals from the United States.
In the same vein, Trudeau declined to say whether he agreed with the president's executive order restricting immigration.
"The last thing Canadians expect is for me to come down and lecture another country on how they choose to govern themselves," he said.
Maintaining the country's close political and economic ties with the United States was top of the Canadian leader's agenda before his visit to Washington. Trudeau had forged an unusually close relationship with former President Barack Obama, but many of Trump's policies, particularly his protectionist stance on trade and his call for renegotiating the North American Free Trade Agreement, are chilling for Canadians. They count on trade with the United States for about 25 percent of their country's gross domestic product.
"It is a real concern for many Canadians, because we know that our economy is very dependent on our bonds with the United States," said Trudeau, who has expressed a cautious openness to renegotiating the trade pact.
Trump's complaints about trade have focused primarily on Mexico, another partner in the North American agreement, and China, which he has accused of taking advantage of the United States. He did not answer a question about whether he sees Canada as a fair trader, but suggested that he does not foresee deep changes in that relationship, which he called "outstanding."
"We'll be tweaking it," he said. "It's a much less severe situation than what's taking place on the southern border."
He said the two leaders had spoken privately about "doing some cross-border things that will make it a lot easier for trade and a lot better and a lot faster." They issued a joint statement pledging to continue border security programs that began under Obama, and reaffirming their commitment to NATO, an alliance that Trump had previously questioned.
In presentation and speech, Trump, a bombastic Republican, and Trudeau, a more mild-mannered Liberal who is 25 years younger, are poles apart. But the prime minister has carefully avoided direct criticism of Trump and his policies. After the U.S. election, he reorganized his Cabinet to better deal with the change of power in Washington and swiftly sent emissaries to meet with Trump's advisers. The meeting on Monday was to be the first test of the Canadian leader's effort to at least foster a good working relationship between the two men.
Trump greeted Trudeau warmly on Monday, a reception similar to the president's greeting last week to Shinzo Abe, Japan's prime minister. The leaders shook hands heartily when Trudeau arrived at the White House, patting each other on the shoulder with their free hands. Trudeau hoped to avoid the apparent terse treatment showed Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull of Australia in a phone call late last month.
Trudeau appears determined to maintain friendly relations with Trump despite their differences, while signaling to Canadians who are wary of their powerful neighbor that Canada still charts its own course.
"We continue our policy of openness to immigration and refugees without compromising security," the prime minister said. "There have been times where we have differed in our approaches, and that's always been done firmly and respectfully."
Trudeau presented the president with a framed photograph taken in the 1980s, showing Trump speaking at the head of a table of people including Pierre Elliott Trudeau, a former Liberal prime minister of Canada and the current prime minister's father.
The Cabinet ministers who traveled with Justin Trudeau Monday had prepared for meetings with their U.S. counterparts by emphasizing the importance of the cross-border relationship to Canadians. Chrystia Freeland, Canada's foreign minister, had reminded Trump administration officials that trade between the two countries is roughly in balance, and that Canada is the largest buyer of U.S. exports from 35 states.
"The combination of Canada being smaller and the United States being bigger and the relationship largely being trouble-free means a lot of Americans don't spend a lot of time thinking about Canada," Freeland said in a recent interview. "Americans are not always fully aware of the economic significance of the relationship."