Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau visited the White House on Wednesday seeking a new "fairer trade" deal among the United States, Canada and Mexico amid growing alarm from business leaders that President Trump is leaning toward jettisoning the North American Free Trade Agreement in favor of bilateral accords.
In a news briefing at the Canadian Embassy, Trudeau insisted that maintaining the trade deal between the United States, Canada and Mexico would "produce better outcomes for the citizens of all three countries," enabling North American businesses to compete more effectively in the global market.
Coming up with ways to achieve "fairer trade" was "the president's focus, and it's certainly my focus," Trudeau said.
However, Trump continued to disparage the 23-year-old accord and promote the idea of bilateral trade deals.
"We'll see what happens," Trump told reporters in the Oval Office after being asked whether NAFTA was dead. "We have a tough negotiation, and it's something you will know in the not too distant future."
The two leaders met as the fourth round of NAFTA negotiations began just outside Washington, with trade experts, businesses, labor and lawmakers from all three countries warning of a possible breakdown in the talks.
While Trudeau reaffirmed that he continued to believe in NAFTA, Trump said that he was willing to strike bilateral trade deals with Canada or Mexico if the negotiations failed.
"Absolutely it's possible we won't be able to reach a deal with one or the other, but in the meantime we'll make a deal with one," Trump said in the Oval Office, seated next to Trudeau. "I think it's going to work out well for both countries and Mexico."
The sense of urgency about the talks has been building after earlier rounds in Mexico City and Ottawa. On Monday, U.S. Chamber of Commerce President Tom Donohue, speaking in Mexico City, said it was time to "ring the alarm bells" on NAFTA. He said that abandoning the agreement would pose an "existential threat" to the continent's national and economic security.
Labor and environmental groups were taking aim at the talks, which have remained closed to the public. Ben Beachy, trade expert at the Sierra Club, said that "it is completely unacceptable that two months into NAFTA's renegotiation" the sessions remained closed.
In his Oval Office comments, Trump added that "we have to protect our workers, and in all fairness, the prime minister wants to protect Canada and his people also. So we'll see what happens with NAFTA."
The president reiterated that "I've been opposed to NAFTA for a long time in terms of the fairness of NAFTA. I said we'll renegotiate." He said, "I think Justin understands that if we can't make a deal, it will be terminated and that will be fine. They're going to do well. We're going to do well. But maybe that won't be necessary. But it has to be fair to both countries."
Earlier Wednesday, during meetings with members of the House Ways and Means Committee, the Canadian prime minister stressed that he did not want negotiations to collapse.
"He made it clear they don't want to pull out. They want a successful renegotiation," said Rep. Sander M. Levin (D-Mich.), a member of the committee. Levin said Trudeau shared his concern about labor conditions and wages, saying he did not want the treaty to speed "a race to the bottom."
But Trudeau also told committee members that he was worried about "poison pills," proposals the United States might make that were designed to kill, not repair, the NAFTA agreement.
The Trump administration's decision to impose 219 percent tariffs on Canadian aircraft — designed to block a Bombardier sale to Delta Air Lines that might otherwise go to Boeing — also inflamed tensions with Canada. Delta chief executive Ed Bastian said on an earnings call that Boeing's case was weak and that he did not expect to pay the tariff, though he added that Delta's 75-plane order could be delayed.
Trudeau said he "highlighted" the dispute in his talks Wednesday. Switching to French, he added that "this was not an easy conversation but an important conversation." He said Canada's military might seek alternatives to Boeing for future fighter-jet purchases.
Trump and Trudeau met one day after an interview was published in Forbes magazine in which Trump said that NAFTA had been "a terrible deal for our country."
"NAFTA has been a disaster for manufacturing in this country. We have lost so much of our car business to Mexico. NAFTA is a disaster as a deal," Trump told the magazine. "Now we're renegotiating it. I happen to think that NAFTA will have to be terminated if we're going to make it good. Otherwise, I believe you can't negotiate a good deal."
The fourth round of talks will extend to Tuesday.
Abby Phillip contributed to this report.