Trump soft pedals NAFTA criticism with Canadian PM, says Mexico the issue

David Jackson, and Donovan Slack

WASHINGTON — Pledging "bridges of commerce" with Canada, President Trump told Prime Minister Justin Trudeau on Monday he wants relatively minor changes to the North American Free Trade Agreement, adding that most of his problems with the massive trade deal involve the deal's third partner, Mexico.

President Trump welcomes Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau outside the West Wing of the White House on Feb. 13, 2017.

"We'll be tweaking it," Trump told reporters about NAFTA, which he attacked during last year's presidential campaign as a "disaster" that sent U.S. jobs to other countries. Trump did not specify what changes he would seek, but said most of the agreement's impact on U.S.-Canada trade relations is "a much less severe situation than what's taken place on the southern border:" Mexico.

"We're going to work with Mexico," Trump said. "We're going to make it a fair deal for both parties."

As for Canada, Trump praised Trudeau for talks that ranged from trade to counter-terrorism. "We should coordinate closely and we will coordinate closely to protect jobs in our hemisphere and keep wealth on our continent and to keep everyone safe," the U.S. president said of his northern neighbor.

Trudeau, sometimes speaking in French, praised the trade pact, and said he had "productive" discussions with Trump, including the topic of "cross-border commerce." He called Canada an "essential partner" of the United States. Trudeau noted that millions of jobs on both sides of the border are depend on trade.

"Relationships between neighbors are pretty complex, and we won't always agree on everything," he said, but added that at the end of the day, he believes the U.S.-Canadian relationship will remain strong.

The two leaders also announced new efforts to fight drug abuse and help more women start and operate their own businesses.

Trump's pledge to re-work NAFTA — or void it altogether if he does not get satisfactory concessions — hovered over his first face-to-face meeting with Trudeau.

On the campaign trail, Trump regularly attacked NAFTA as a bad trade deal that sent U.S. jobs to Mexico and Canada.

Trump has already clashed with Mexico, mostly over Trump's planned wall along the U.S.-Mexico border.

Trump, 70, and Trudeau, 45, are virtual polar opposites politically. Trudeau leads the Liberal Party of Canada, half his Cabinet is female and he is a backer of free trade. Canada has also accepted 40,000 Syrian refugees.

Trump’s immigration order — temporarily stayed by a federal court panel — would bar any Syrian refugees from traveling to the United States, only two of his 16 official Cabinet picks are women, and he has signaled he will take a more protectionist stance on trade.

At the joint press conference Monday, Trudeau demurred when asked for his thoughts on Trump's order.

"The last thing Canadians expect is for me to come down and lecture another country on how they choose to govern themselves," he said.

Trudeau suggested both he and Trump want the same thing — free and open countries where citizens are safe from terrorism — but are taking different approaches.

Trump said he wants a "big, beautiful open door, and we want people to come in," but he said "we cannot let the wrong people in," and Americans want that kind of security.

"We are getting such praise for our stance, and it’s a stance of common sense," he said.  "We are going to pursue it vigorously."

Trudeau, the son of former Canadian Prime Minister Pierre Trudeau, arrived at the White House shortly before 11 a.m. ET.

After an Oval Office meeting, Trump and Trudeau attended what each side billed as a major act of bilateral cooperation: A "roundtable discussion" on "the advancement of women entrepreneurs and business leaders." Presidential daughter Ivanka Trump, who has made women's issues a major part of her portfolio, will also participate.

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The president and prime minister announced the creation of a permanent "United States-Canada Council for the Advancement of Women Business Leaders-Female Entrepreneurs."

Trump said "we need to make it easier" for women to create and lead businesses, while Trudeau talked about bringing down "significant barriers" to women entrepreneurs.

The president and prime minister also had a "working lunch" prior to the news conference at which trade again became a major topic.

Trade with Canada totaled an estimated $662.7 billion in 2015, according to the U.S. Trade Representative. The United States exported $337.3 billion worth of goods and services and imported $325.4 billion worth.

Trudeau visited the White House last March, when he and then-President Barack Obama announced a new border agreement aimed at streamlining regulations and reducing bottlenecks at border crossings.

Trudeau joked during the visit that Canada would welcome Americans seeking to flee the United States if Trump was elected, but he was more diplomatic about the prospect of a Trump presidency at a White House press conference.

"The relationship, the friendship between our two countries goes far beyond any two individuals or any ideologies," Trudeau said. "I have tremendous confidence in the American people and look forward to working with whomever they choose to send to this White House later this year."