QUEBEC CITY – President Donald Trump told foreign leaders at the Group of Seven summit that they must dramatically reduce trade barriers with the United States or they would risk losing access to the world’s largest economy, delivering his most defiant trade threat yet to his counterparts from around the globe.
But there were numerous signs here that leaders of other countries stood their ground, having stiffened after months of attacks and insults. Each country now faces crucial decisions about how to proceed. If they don’t back down and Trump does try to stop – or at least slow – the flow of trade, it could impact the flow of hundreds of billions of dollars in goods, potentially impacting millions of jobs in the U.S. and around the world.
Trump, in a news conference before leaving for Singapore, described private conversations he held over two days with the leaders of Britain, France, Germany, Italy, Japan and Canada. He said he pushed them to consider removing every single tariff or trade barrier on American goods, and in return he would do the same for products from their countries. But if steps aren’t taken, he said, the penalties would be severe.
“We’re like the piggy bank that everybody is robbing,” Trump said. “And that ends.”
The U.S. leader described the meetings with his counterparts as cordial, and he repeatedly blamed past U.S. leaders for what he views as a trade imbalance. He also said other nations had taken advantage of decades of U.S. complacency with regards to trade, something that he planned to end.
The two-day session under crystalline blue skies in Charlevoix, Quebec, put Trump’s transactional view of alliances, economic leverage and trade relationships into sharp focus for other nations often frustrated by Trump’s ad hoc decision-making.
At this second G-7 gathering of Trump’s presidency, the question of whether the U.S. leader would follow through on campaign boasts about punishing international freeloaders has been largely answered.
He did not back away or blunt his critiques, and despite first-name references to “Angela,” and “Justin,” Trump did little to disguise his distrust of the international consensus model of world affairs that the G-7 represents.
The weekend meeting marked the first time other countries began employing new way of dealing with Trump in person, pushing back on his declarations and threats and trying to illustrate the damage he was doing to the U.S. economy.
Representatives from other G-7 countries said they felt like they had made progress in conveying their positions to Trump, something many of them felt pressured to do by voters at home.
German Chancellor Angela Merkel’s office released a photograph as Trump left the summit Saturday that showed her locked in an exchange with Trump: He is seated, arms folded, wearing an inscrutable expression. She stands opposite him, leaning over a table with both arms extended as other leaders and aides look on.
A Reuters photographer, meanwhile, captured a photograph Friday of the imprint that French President Emmanuel Macron left on Trump’s right hand after a handshake, suggesting the French leader used a forceful grip.
The imprint of French President Emmanuel Macron's thumb can be seen across the back of U.S. President Donald Trump's hand after they shook hands during a bilateral meeting at the G7 Summit in Charlevoix, Quebec, Canada, June 8, 2018. REUTERS Photo by Leah Millis pic.twitter.com/XSN1VFOIpe
— Jim Bourg (@jimbourg) June 8, 2018
Trump had grumbled to aides ahead of the meeting that he didn’t want to go sit through lectures from the other leaders, and he mused about sending Vice President Mike Pence in his place.
He arrived to the meeting late and left early, holding a solo news conference Saturday morning where he gave the trade ultimatum and said the size of the U.S. economy means other nations can’t win a trade war.
“We win that war a thousand times out of a thousand,” Trump said.
Trump often appeared more interested in the unprecedented summit he will hold Tuesday with North Korean leader Kim Jong Un, where he said he looks forward to sizing up both Kim and the potential for ending one of the world’s most dangerous nuclear standoffs.
“It’s a one-time shot, and I think it’s going to work out very well,” Trump said, adding later that there is also a significant chance of failure. He said he’d probably know within the first minute of his sit-down with Kim whether he can make a deal. Trump credited his intuitive “touch” as a dealmaker.
He bristled at a question that touched on the apparent disconnect between his confrontations with democratic allies in Canada and his enthusiasm for a meeting with a dictator.
“I figured,” he said dismissively, when the questioner identified himself as representing CNN. “Fake news CNN,” Trump said.
Trump repeated his view that Russia should be readmitted despite its annexation of Ukraine’s Crimea four years ago.
The leaders discussed the question of Russia’s inclusion in the group but reached no conclusion, Trump said.
“We didn’t do votes or anything, but it has been discussed,” he said.
Trump first referred to the Crimean annexation, which led to the G-7 disinviting Russia, only obliquely.
“Something happened awhile ago where Russia is no longer in,” he said. “I think it would be good to have Russia back in.”
“We’re looking for peace in the world. We’re not looking to play games,” Trump added.
Russia is a permanent member of the United Nations Security Council and plays a significant role in international security issues. It also holds a seat in the larger Group of 20.
Trump is not the first politician to make the real politik argument that Russia belongs at the G-7 table, but his position is a complete turnabout from the Obama administration, which condemned the 2014 Russian annexation from Ukraine and imposed sanctions on Russia in punishment.
“Crimea was let go during the Obama administration and you know Obama can say all he wants, but he allowed Russia to take Crimea. I might have had a very different” response, Trump said.
Trump’s pitch that world leaders eliminate all tariffs – or else – was his latest attempt to reorder the global trading system, which he says is stacked unfairly against the United States.
The two-day summit here was intended to cool tensions between Trump and other world leaders, but as they departed on Saturday it became clear that many are still searching for answers and also searching for ways to deal with the unpredictable U.S. leader.
For example, on Friday evening, the White House issued a statement saying Trump and Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau were very close to a deal to rework the North American Free Trade Agreement.
But during his comments on Saturday morning, Trump said there were still a number of different ways the NAFTA talks could play out, including the possibility of doing separate deals with Mexico and Canada, effectively cleaving the 20-year agreement in two.
“It was not contentious,” Trump said. “What was strong was the language that this cannot go on, but the relationships are very good.”
Trump gave a much different account of the talks during the two day summit as other officials. Canadians, for example, said Trudeau pushed back firmly on Trump’s imposition of tariffs on steel and aluminum imports. But Trump made it sound like other countries acknowledged that they were cheating the U.S. in these trade deals and he had finally caught them in the act.
“The European Union is brutal to the United States and they know it,” Trump said, adding that other leaders acknowledge as much in private.
“It’s like the gig is up,” he said. “They can’t believe they got away with it.”
European officials described a much different encounter with Trump than the one he portrayed. They also explained how his protectionist policies had given them no choice but to retaliate with tariffs of their own. Trump had tried to essentially splinter the European leaders by negotiating some changes with Germany and different ones with France, but those leaders appeared locked together in confronting Trump on trade.
They had been careful not to reveal their approach before meeting with Trump, though it appeared very calculated.
“If you have a strategy, do not explain your strategy before the meeting – because if you are explaining your strategy before the meeting, you are losing your strategy,” European Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker told reporters.
As for Trump’s proposal to eliminate all tariffs, Trump said it was unclear how other countries would respond.
“I did suggest it,” Trump said. “I guess they are going to go back to the drawing board and check it out.”