OTTAWA—Prime Minister Justin Trudeau’s office says U.S. President Donald Trump has agreed to “continue” to seek the release of two Canadians believed to be arbitrarily detained in China.
According to his office, Trudeau spoke to Trump Monday about a handful of bilateral issues including steel and aluminum tariffs, the closure of GM plants in both countries, and Canada’s arrest of a Huawei executive in response to a U.S. extradition request that enraged China.
The Dec. 1 arrest in Vancouver of Huawei CFO Meng Wanzhou, wanted on fraud-related charges tied to Iran sanctions, was followed days later by China’s arrest of Canadians Michael Kovrig and Michael Spavor on unspecified national security allegations.
A more-detailed-than-usual PMO readout of the Trudeau-Trump phone call suggests Trudeau made a case to Trump of the necessity of refraining from public comments that cast the Huawei case in a political framework.
It said the two leaders discussed “an extradition request made of Canada by the United States.”
It went on to say Trudeau thanked Trump “for the strong statements of support by the United States in response to the arbitrary detention of two Canadians in China.”
To date, Trump has not personally made any statement calling for the release of the Canadians.
Only Trump’s Secretary of State Mike Pompeo lent his voice to Canada’s concerns last month.
Governments in France, Australia, Britain and the European Union have since also backed Canada’s concern the men’s detention is in retaliation for the arrest of the Huawei executive.
In contrast, Trump told Reuters he would intervene to block the extradition request of Meng if he thought it would help strike a better deal with China.
Now, Trudeau’s office says the release of the two detained Canadians is a shared goal: “The two leaders agreed to continue to seek their release.”
It is not clear if Trump did in fact agree to make the release of the Canadians a priority. Trump made no mention of it in two exchanges with reporters on Monday.
The Canada-U.S. call comes as talks to resolve the ongoing bitter trade dispute and tariff war between the U.S. and China got underway Monday in Beijing.
However Trump told reporters Sunday he believed the Chinese “want to make a deal” with his administration because “their economy is not doing well.”
Trump said the U.S. tariffs he imposed on Chinese imports “have absolutely hurt China very badly” while the U.S. is taking in “a lot of money through tariffs.”
“My relationship with President Xi is as good as any relationship that a president here has had with a president or leader in China. And I think good things are going to happen.”
Conservative foreign affairs critic Erin O’Toole said in an interview the PMO release is a clear attempt to show that Canada was obliged under extradition law to act on the U.S. request, and to suggest the comments by Trump were damaging and unfortunate.
“I think a call with the president on all these things is always good,” said O’Toole. “But the fact that he hasn’t made that leader-to-leader call with the Chinese president (Xi Jinping) causes concern, because we’ve been asking for that since mid-December.”
“And he (Trudeau) is treating this as a consular case when it isn’t a consular situation at all. This is a state-to-state dispute. It’s clearly not going well and if he called President Trump on it, he should call President Xi as well.”
In addition to speaking about the detained Canadians and the arrest of Meng, the PMO said Trudeau and Trump discussed “the importance of trade and jobs, building upon the successful renegotiation of the new North American Free Trade Agreement. They reaffirmed their support for workers affected by the closure of General Motors plants in Canada and the United States, and discussed next steps in addressing steel and aluminum tariffs.”
But there was no clear indication that the U.S. tariffs that were imposed in June on Canadian steel and aluminum tariffs — which Trump has slapped on global imports including China’s — would be lifted anytime soon.
Meanwhile a Canadian delegation of senators and MPs was in China Monday on a business and education trip. Conservative MP Michael Cooper told CBC the delegation made clear to their counterparts that there can be no business as usual in Canada-China relations as long as the two Canadians remain detained.
Tonda MacCharles is an Ottawa-based reporter covering federal politics. Follow her on Twitter: @tondamacc