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Coronavirus forces Biden to forgo pomp for US-Canada meeting

The coronavirus pandemic is forcing President Joe Biden to alter another first for his administration: the typically formal White House meeting with a foreign counterpart.
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The coronavirus pandemic is forcing President Joe Biden to alter another first for his administration: the typically formal White House meeting with a foreign counterpart.

Biden will play host to Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau on Tuesday for the first bilateral meeting of his presidency, but he will do it virtually.

In pre-pandemic times, such a meeting would have been held with fanfare: Biden welcoming the Canadian prime minister with great pomp upon his arrival, an Oval Office talk between the two leaders, a joint news conference and perhaps a luncheon.

But with both leaders stressing caution to their citizens, Biden and Trudeau are forgoing the typical protocol and holding their talks by video conference.

U.S. presidents traditionally invite the Canadian prime minister for their first meeting with a world leader. White House officials said they are still trying to offer a touch of stagecraft for the meeting.

The two leaders — Biden in the Roosevelt Room at the White House and Trudeau in the prime minister's office in Ottawa — will deliver brief remarks in front of the media at the start of their meeting.

Then Biden, Vice-President Kamala Harris, Secretary of State Antony Blinken and national security adviser Jake Sullivan will hold a 45-minute session with Trudeau, Deputy Prime Minister and Finance Minister Chrystia Freeland, Foreign Affairs Minister Marc Garneau and Canada's ambassador to the United States, Kirsten Hillman, according to a senior Biden administration official who previewed the meeting.

That meeting will be followed by an extended session that is expected to include Harris as well as several of Biden's Cabinet-level advisers and Trudeau's ministers.

“It is fitting testament that this is his first bilateral meeting,” White House press secretary Jen Psaki said.

The agenda includes the two countries' COVID-19 responses, climate change, economic issues and more. Biden and Trudeau plan to deliver joint closing statements, with Biden appearing from the White House East Room, at the end of their meeting. The White House said the leaders also plan to issue a “road map” outlining how the neighbouring countries will work together to fight COVID-19, curb climate emissions and pursue other shared priorities.

It was unclear whether Trudeau would again raise with the Democratic president the idea of allowing Canada, which is struggling to vaccinate its population, to buy vaccines from pharmaceutical giant Pfizer's manufacturing facility in Michigan. Canada currently is getting vaccines shipped from a Pfizer plant in Belgium.

Trudeau brought up the issue when the two leaders spoke by phone last month, Biden's first call to a foreign leader as president. But Biden's “first priority” remains “ensuring every American is vaccinated,” Psaki said.

Another area of concern for Trudeau is the “Buy American” executive order that Biden signed during his first week in office. It's designed to encourage the federal government to spend more of the roughly $600 billion earmarked for procurement to boost U.S. factories and hiring.

Biden said that as part of the push he was creating a “Made in America” office to evaluate contracts and make sure waivers are used only in “very limited circumstances,” such as when there is an overwhelming national security, humanitarian or emergency need in the U.S. The issue is crucial to Canada since the U.S. accounts for about 75% of its exports.

Asked if Canada may get a waiver from Biden’s “Buy American” order, Psaki said Monday that “no changes are anticipated.” But in an exchange with reporters on Tuesday ahead of the Biden-Trudeau meeting, Psaki appeared to offer a little more wiggle room.

“We’re still evaluating the application of that and how it will apply,” she said. “I don’t expect them to make any commitments during the meeting today.”

Trudeau is also expected to again raise concerns to Biden about two Canadians imprisoned in China in apparent retaliation for Canada’s arrest of a top Huawei executive, according to a senior Canadian official familiar with the prime minister’s preparation for the call.

Michael Spavor and Michael Kovrig were detained in China following the arrest of Huawei Chief Financial Officer Meng Wanzhou in Canada after the U.S. requested her extradition to face charges that the Chinese telecom company executive committed wire and bank fraud and violated U.S. sanctions on Iran. She denies the allegations. Biden is anticipating that Trudeau will raise the issue and plans to make clear that the White House will be as “supportive as possible to help secure the release" of the two Canadian men, according to a senior Biden administration official who spoke on condition of anonymity to preview the meeting.

China lashed out at Canada last week for joining the U.S. and 56 other countries in endorsing a declaration denouncing state-sponsored arbitrary detention of foreign citizens for political purposes.

Biden also used the call last month to explain his decision to halt building of the Keystone XL pipeline. The long-disputed project was supported by Trudeau and projected to carry some 800,000 barrels of oil a day from the tar sands of Alberta to the Texas Gulf Coast, passing through Montana, South Dakota, Nebraska, Kansas and Oklahoma.

Despite Trudeau’s disappointment with Biden’s decision to cancel the project, Canadian government officials said the call went well between the two leaders, who have known each other for years.

Canadian officials expect Trudeau to have a far more productive relationship with Biden than he did with Donald Trump. The Republican president, in a fit of pique in 2018, took to Twitter following a meeting of the Group of Seven industrialized nations to malign the prime minister as “dishonest and weak” after Trudeau voiced objections to Trump raising tariffs on steel and aluminum from Canada, Mexico and the European Union.

Aamer Madhani And Rob Gillies, The Associated Press