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Biden speaks with Trudeau - virtually - for his first bilateral meeting

President Joe Biden waves after holding a virtual

President Joe Biden waves after holding a virtual meeting with Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, in the East Room of the White House, Tuesday, Feb. 23, 2021, in Washington. Credit: AP/Evan Vucci

WASHINGTON — President Joe Biden held his first bilateral meeting with a foreign leader on Tuesday, hosting a virtual session with Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau that focused on resetting relations after a tense four years between Trudeau and former President Donald Trump.

"We're all best served when the United States and Canada work together and lead together," Biden told Trudeau, speaking via teleconference from the White House’s Roosevelt Room.

Trudeau, speaking from his office in Ottawa, took a subtle dig at Trump, telling Biden: "U.S. leadership has been sorely missed over the past years."

Both leaders were joined by top officials in their administrations for a round of virtual talks focused on tackling the coronavirus, climate change and finding areas for economic cooperation.

Citing COVID-19 concerns, the two leaders opted for a virtual meeting, devoid of the usual ceremonial touches rolled out when foreign leaders visit the White House.

Biden, delivering remarks after the meeting, said "for both our nations getting COVID under control at home and abroad is an immediate priority," and said both countries were committed to working together to lead "a robust economic recovery that benefits everyone."

Trudeau, speaking after the meeting, described Canada and the United States as "each other's closest allies," and affirmed "our bond will grow even stronger."

Officials on both sides of the border said they expected the meeting would provide a reboot for the relationship between the White House and Trudeau, a center-left leader who shared a strained relationship with Trump.

Trump in tweets had called Trudeau "mild and meek" and "dishonest and weak," after Canada imposed retaliatory tariffs in 2018 in response to Trump imposing tariffs on foreign steel and aluminum imports. In 2019 Trump told reporters Trudeau was "two-faced" after video emerged of the Canadian leader and other world leaders, including French President Emanuel Macron, appearing to mock Trump after a NATO gathering.

While Biden and Trudeau previously shared a warm relationship during Biden’s time as vice president — Trudeau honored Biden with a state dinner in Canada in 2016 — Biden has since taken actions that are at odds with Trudeau’s agenda.

In Biden’s first day in office, he signed an executive order revoking the license for the Keystone XL Pipeline, a planned 1,700-mile pipeline that was set to transport roughly 800,000 barrels of crude oil a day from Alberta, Canada, to the Texas Gulf Coast.

The pipeline, which was set to pass through Montana, South Dakota, Nebraska, Kansas and Oklahoma, has been widely protested by U.S. environmental groups. But it is a top priority for Canada, which has the third-largest oil reserves in the world and is America’s number one source of foreign oil.

The Obama administration originally rejected the project’s permit, but Trump through executive action approved it in March 2017, just months after taking office. Work on the pipeline kicked off last April, but has since been halted after Biden’s order.

In a briefing with reporters before the bilateral meeting, an administration official said the decision to repeal the permit "will not be reconsidered."

Canadian officials have also raised concerns about Biden’s "Buy American" executive order, which encourages federal agencies to purchase solely from U.S. manufacturers. The order allows for waivers under "very limited circumstances," but Canada’s top leaders have said they are worried the order will reduce trade and impact Canadian manufacturers who export to the Unite States.

"We are always concerned by ‘Buy American’ … for sure that is going to be an issue very, very high on our agenda in our work with the Biden administration," Canadian Finance Minister Chrystia Freeland told reporters in Ottawa last month.

White House press secretary Jen Psaki, asked Tuesday before the bilateral meeting if Canada would be eligible for a waiver, said, "We’re still evaluating the application of that and how it will apply. I don’t expect them to make any commitments during the meeting today."

Canadian officials have also been pressing the Biden administration to open up the sale of U.S.-produced Pfizer COVID-19 vaccines to Canada. The pharmaceutical giant has signed an agreement with the United States ensuring that the first 100 million doses of the vaccine will remain in the country, leading Canada to purchase its Pfizer vaccine supply overseas from a plant in Belgium.

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