In The Media

Donald Trump becomes the first president in 40 years not to visit Canada in his first year

by Daniel Dale (feat. Colin Robertson)

Toronto Star
December 30, 2017

At midnight Sunday, Donald Trump will become the first U.S. president since Jimmy Carter not to visit Canada in his first calendar year in office, though former diplomats said they would not make too much of Trump’s absence.

WASHINGTON—Ronald Reagan made his first presidential trip to Canada four months into his term.

George H.W. Bush visited Canada just three weeks into his term.

For Bill Clinton, it was two-and-a-half months. For George W. Bush, it was three months. And for Barack Obama, it was one month.

Donald Trump? To be determined.

With 2017 about to end, Trump is set to become the first U.S. president in 40 years, since Jimmy Carter, not to visit Canada in his first calendar year in office.

For four of the six presidents who preceded Trump — Obama, Clinton, George H.W. Bush and Reagan — Canada was the very first foreign destination. For Trump, it will be, at earliest, the 15th, and probably lower.

Trump is likely to attend the G7 summit in Quebec in June. There are no current plans for him to come earlier, though Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, who has visited Trump twice at the White House, has issued invitations.

“The PM and president have developed a constructive, positive working relationship and have spoken or met on numerous occasions,” Trudeau spokesperson Cameron Ahmad said in November, noting that the two leaders have had “17 individual interactions” since Trump was elected. “Our offices, diplomats, ministers, and officials communicate regularly on many key files and shared priorities. The prime minister has extended an invitation to the president to visit Canada and continues to look forward to future opportunities to engage.”

By most accounts, including Trump’s own, the 46-year-old multilateralist Liberal prime minister and the 71-year-old nationalist Republican president have developed a friendly working relationship. Even as he disparages the North American Free Trade Agreement that Trudeau supports, Trump regularly tells audiences he likes Trudeau.

On Thursday, in an interview with the New York Times, Trump referred to “my friend Justin” while inaccurately describing the state of bilateral trade.

“What’s important is the meetings and discussions and the dialogue, not where they’re taking place. And they certainly have been taking place; they just haven’t been taking place in Canada,” said David Wilkins, the U.S. ambassador to Canada during George W. Bush’s second term.

Wilkins noted that Obama followed his prompt visit with years of delay on the Keystone XL oil pipeline that was a top priority for the Canadian government, then eventually rejected the pipeline. Trump, conversely, rapidly approved the project.

“What’s more important, a visit or the approval of a vital pipeline?” Wilkins said.

In part, Trump’s decision not to visit may reflect a coincidence of scheduling: no international summits have been held in Canada this year. It also likely reflects what appears to be Trump’s desire to avoid going places where he might face protests. And Trump has often appeared more comfortable dealing with non-democratic leaders than with traditional western allies.

His first visit was to autocratic Saudi Arabia, which flattered him with an opulent reception. His second was to Israel, the rare democracy where he is popular.

On his first European trip, he attended a G7 summit in Italy and a NATO summit in Belgium. On his second, he attended summits in Poland and Germany. His five-country Asian trip took him to Japan, South Korea, China, Vietnam and the Philippines.

Trump has accepted a lone invitation for a one-stop visit of the kind Trudeau would be offering, visiting France in July to attend a grand military parade with President Emmanuel Macron.

Analysts see the relationship between Trudeau and Trump as especially important to Canada given the precarious status of NAFTA, which is under Trump-initiated renegotiation. But Trudeau, said former Canadian diplomat Colin Robertson, is not in a political position to provide the kind of lavish treatment and protest-free surroundings Trump has made clear he prefers.

“If Trump came to Canada, the adverse reaction could damage the relationship given Trump’s king-size ego,” said Robertson, a fellow at the Canadian Global Affairs Institute. “He’d probably hold Trudeau accountable, and after the extravagant Saudi red carpet treatment we could never compete — nor would we want to, given the blowback Trudeau would get.”

Trump has not yet visited Mexico, where he is deeply loathed. And he has not visited the United Kingdom, the most frequent destination for U.S. presidents since the Carter era. After a series of delays that appeared to be related to Trump’s local unpopularity and his incendiary remarks, he is now expected to visit Britain in early 2018.

Carter, who served a single term, was the last president never to visit Canada. Obama visited three times during his eight years in office. Ronald Reagan, Bill Clinton and George W. Bush (who all served two terms) and George H.W. Bush (who served one) each visited Canada four or five times.


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