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Trump calls for Russia to be reinstated to G-7, threatens allies on trade

The Washington Post logoThe Washington Post 6/8/2018 Damian Paletta, Anne Gearan, John Wagner
Donald Trump wearing a suit and tie © Provided by WP Company LLC d/b/a The Washington Post

CHARLEVOIX, Quebec — President Trump said Friday that Russia should be readmitted to the Group of Seven club of industrial economies four years after its expulsion over the annexation of Crimea, further provoking U.S. allies outraged or unnerved by Trump’s swerve to trade protectionism.

Trump lobbed what amounted to a diplomatic stink bomb as he left the White House for the annual two-day G-7 summit, where he arrived late and planned to leave early.

Trump said he knows such outreach to Russia may not be “politically correct,” and he appeared to dismiss G-7 members’ anger and hurt feelings over what they call unfair trade barriers and ingratitude from Washington.

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“All of these countries have been taking advantage of the United States on trade,” Trump said, citing Canadian dairy tariffs.

“We have massive trade deficits with almost every country. We will straighten that out,” Trump said during an approximately 20-minute impromptu question and answer session with reporters outside the White House.

“And I’ll tell you what, it’s what I do. It won’t even be hard. And in the end, we’ll all get along.”

Trump did appear to get along with the other leaders when he finally arrived in this sparkling resort town on the St. Lawrence River. He arrived too late for a scheduled sit-down meeting with French President Emmanuel Macron, who has been one of Trump’s toughest critics on trade over the past few weeks.

Trump’s comments on Russia, however, were a repudiation of the position the G-7 took in 2014 to exclude Russia because of what the remaining members called the illegitimate annexation of Crimea from Ukraine.

“Now, I love our country. I have been Russia’s worst nightmare,” Trump said in Washington. “But with that being said, Russia should be in this meeting.

“Whether you like it or not, and it may not be politically correct, but we have a world to run . . . . They should let Russia come back in.”

Most other members of the G-7, including the leaders of the United Kingdom, Germany and France, are unlikely to agree to Trump’s call for readmitting Russia, meaning the suggestion could further divide the group and make it even more ineffectual.

In an interview with Sky News on Friday, British Prime Minister Theresa May said it was important to “engage with Russia.”

But, she added, “Let’s remember why the G-8 became the G-7. And before discussions could begin on any of this, we would have to ensure Russia is amending its ways and taking a different route.”

Trump’s position won backing from new Italian Prime Minister Giuseppe Conte, who said he, too, wanted Russia back in the fold.

Trump has sought to improve relations between the United States and Russia since taking office, though he has faced steep criticism from lawmakers in both parties for doing so. The U.S. government and other nations have imposed strict sanctions on Russia over Crimea.

U.S. intelligence agencies have said they have “high confidence” that Russia interfered in the 2016 election, and part of this year’s G-7 summit was supposed to focus on protecting democracies from foreign meddling.

Special counsel Robert S. Mueller III is investigating Russian interference efforts, including whether Trump’s campaign colluded in any way with Russian officials, a probe that has become an obsession for the president.

Trump’s suggestion that Russia be readmitted to the G-7 was heavily criticized by political opponents back home, including Senate Minority Leader Charles E. Schumer (D-N.Y.), who said Trump was “turning our foreign policy into an international joke.”

“We need the president to be able to distinguish between our allies and adversaries, and to treat each accordingly,” Schumer said. “On issue after issue, he’s failed to do that.”

Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) issued a statement saying that “Vladimir Putin chose to make Russia unworthy of membership in the G-8 by invading Ukraine and annexing Crimea. Nothing he has done since then has changed that most obvious fact.”

McCain, the chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee, was among the first lawmakers to call for Russia’s ejection from what was then the G-8.

Trump effectively upended this year’s G-7 summit even before it began by raising the prospect of refusing to sign on to a joint statement with other leaders asserting commonly shared principles and values.

In the past several months, Trump has pushed to completely overturn many of the post-World War II institutions put in place to strengthen global ties. These tensions have created immense strain ahead of the summit in Canada, with top leaders questioning if they are in the midst of a transformational disruption brought on by the United States.

“The rules-based international order is being challenged,” European Commission President Donald Tusk told reporters here. “Quite surprisingly, not by the usual suspects but by its main architect and guarantor, the U.S. … We will not stop trying to convince our American friends and President Trump that undermining this order makes no sense at all.”

In response to Trump’s proposal for Russia, Tusk said it would only make the group more divisive.

“For today, I think it’s much more important to convince our American partners to strengthen our format as guarantor of world order, than to look for something new, more challenging, more difficult,” he said.

Moscow didn’t rush to publicly embrace Trump’s pronouncement. Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov said Russia preferred to emphasize “other formats” of international talks. Lawmaker Konstantin Kosachev, chairman of the foreign relations committee in Russia’s upper house of parliament, said the country should only rejoin the group on its own terms — “with sanctions removed and interests respected.”

“The G-8 needs Russia much more than Russia needs the G-8,” Kosachev said in a statement.

A version of the G-7 or G-8 has existed since the 1970s, designed to build a consensus among world leaders to tackle global challenges.

Trump on Friday also reiterated his plans to take a tough stance on trade with U.S. allies at the summit, threatening again to withdraw from the North American Free Trade Agreement.

“We have to change it, and they understand it’s going to happen,” Trump said. “If we’re unable to make a deal, we’ll terminate NAFTA. We’ll make a better deal.”

The comments marked the latest in declarations in recent days that have completely redirected the focus the G-7, an organization Trump has shown little regard for since taking office last year.

In an earlier Twitter post, Trump said the United States would emerge victorious if other nations refused to accede to his trade demands, suggesting that he plans to employ a take-it-or-leave-it bargaining position with other world leaders at the summit here.

“Looking forward to straightening out unfair Trade Deals with the G-7 countries,” Trump wrote. “If it doesn’t happen, we come out even better!”

Thursday evening, when tensions between Trump and the leaders of France and Canada appeared to be boiling over, the U.S. leader vowed to impose new tariffs and other economic penalties against Canada and the European Union if they did not allow more U.S. imports into their countries.

Trump is also scheduled to meet with Trudeau on Friday, and then he will leave the summit early Saturday, an unexpected schedule revision that will pull him out of discussions on climate change.

Many of the world leaders represented here, including Trudeau, have sought to draw Trump toward multilateral institutions despite his “America First” agenda.

But in recent weeks, there have been signs that world leaders have scrapped that approach and now plan to deal with Trump in a more adversarial way, particularly after the White House announced it would begin imposing tariffs on steel and aluminum imports from U.S. allies beginning in June.

Macron on Thursday said Trump was isolating the United States and suggested that foreign leaders might simply wait until Trump’s time in the White House has concluded before reengaging with the United States. Trump, meanwhile, said Trudeau was acting “indignant” and attacked the United States’ northern neighbor in Twitter posts, focusing in part on Canadian dairy policy.

Trump is now engaged in trade wars with numerous countries in Europe, North America and Asia, which could affect the flow of hundreds of billions of dollars in goods, including automobiles, agricultural products and technology. He wants Europe and Japan to lower tariffs on imports of automobiles. He wants China to buy more agriculture and energy products from the United States. He is pushing Mexican leaders for a range of changes to NAFTA, and he wants that entire pact to expire after five years.

His view is that other countries have imposed unfair tariffs limiting U.S. imports for decades but that the United States has unwittingly allowed those countries to bring low-cost goods into the country, hurting American companies and workers.

Foreign leaders are aware of the shaky ground Trump is on when he levels these trade threats, as a growing number of congressional Republicans have expressed outrage, and some are trying to intervene to strip away his powers. So far, Trump has held these lawmakers, including Sen. Bob Corker (R-Tenn.), at bay, but U.S. business groups — worried about the prospect of higher costs driven by Trump’s trade threats — are pushing Congress to act.

The Kremlin, meanwhile, appears to be enjoying an “I told you so” moment as it watches Trump’s escalating conflict with America’s closest allies. Putin has long spoken about the dangers of a world dominated by the United States, and on Thursday, he said that with Trump’s metals tariffs, Europeans were getting their comeuppance for showing excessive deference to Washington — and getting a taste of the way the United States has long treated Russia.

“Our partners probably thought that these counterproductive policies would never affect them,” Putin said in his annual televised call-in show. “No one wanted to listen, and no one wanted to do anything to stop these tendencies. Here we are.”

damian.paletta@washpost.com

anne.gearan@washpost.com

john.wagner@washpost.com

Paletta reported from Quebec City. Wagner reported from Washington. Anton Troianovski in Moscow contributed to this report.

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