Escalating his confrontation with American allies, President Trump came to the summit of the Group of 7 major economic powers in Canada on Friday with a stunning proposal: that Russia be reinstated into their ranks, four years after its expulsion for its global transgressions.
“Now I love our country. I have been Russia’s worst nightmare,” Trump told reporters at the White House before departing for Joint Base Andrews for the flight to Quebec. “But with that being said, Russia should be in this meeting. Why are we having a meeting without Russia being in the meeting?”
Russia was expelled from what was then the G-8 in 2014, after Moscow’s annexation of Crimea. Subsequently, U.S. intelligence agencies concluded it interfered in the 2016 presidential election, and Trump’s campaign is currently under criminal investigation for possible collusion with Russia. Britain, a G-7 member, this year charged Russia with using a nerve agent to nearly kill two Russian exiles in an English town.
European Council President Donald Tusk, who wrote in the New York Times this week that the G-7 nations must stay together despite Trump's "unfortunate and worrying" actions on trade and other issues, splashed cold water on his call to reinstate Russia during a news conference in Quebec prior to Trump’s arrival.
"Let's leave seven as it is," Tusk said. "It's a lucky number.”
British Prime Minister Theresa May told the British TV network Sky News: “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 later acknowledged to reporters, at separate one-on-one meetings with the summit host, Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, and French President Emmanuel Macron, that the group hadn’t even discussed his idea.
His proposal nonetheless further strained relations between the U.S. and its closest allies, many of whom have taken a more confrontational posture in recent days after Trump’s decision to impose steel and aluminum tariffs on Canada, Mexico and the European Union. Tensions were already simmering over his abandonment of the Paris climate accord and the multinational Iran nuclear deal.
The drama drew uncommon attention to the usually sleepy annual summit, even as Trump prepares for his much more anticipated meeting on Tuesday in Singapore with North Korea’s Kim Jong Un. This G-7 conference now could be one of the most consequential in the 45 years since the major powers formed their economic alliance in response to the Arab oil embargo, and for a once-unthinkable reason: America’s estrangement from its closest allies, even as Trump openly advocates for Russia and its leader, Vladimir Putin.
“It’s not just unorthodox. It’s ineffective and it’s disgraceful for an American president to act this way,” said Nicholas Burns, who served in high-ranking diplomatic positions from the Reagan through George W. Bush administrations, including as ambassador to Greece and NATO. “It’s one thing to be tough on Iran and North Korea … but France and Britain? Come on.”
Burns called Trump’s pitch for Russia’s readmittance “preposterous” and suggested the president — who likes to tell audiences that the United States “is respected again” — is no longer taken seriously around the world. “I don’t take comfort in that,” he added. “We don’t want our president to be laughed at.”
At the summit site in a Quebec resort town, the appearance of the leaders for the traditional “family photo,” standing against the scenic backdrop of the St. Lawrence River and shoreline, captured the mood. The participants, including Trump, seemed unusually stilted in their interactions, and their posing was over in a matter of seconds. Trump deflected a reporter’s shouted question whether he would relent on tariffs, as he left alongside German Chancellor Angela Merkel for a brief conversation.
The White House had announced late Thursday that Trump would leave the summit early on Saturday, but he arrived late as well after delaying his departure, partly to talk with reporters outside the Oval Office. That forced the postponement of the bilateral meeting with Macron, with whom Trump had traded Twitter taunts this week.
Tusk, in prepared remarks opening the summit before the tardy Trump arrived, warned that the G-7 division played into Putin's hands, though he did not mention the Russian president by name.
"It is clear that the U.S. president and the rest of the group continue to disagree on trade, climate change and the Iran nuclear deal," Tusk said. "What worries me most, however, is the fact that the rules-based international order is being challenged, quite surprisingly, not by the usual suspects but by its main architect and guarantor — the U.S.”
“Naturally, we cannot force the U.S. to change their minds,” Tusk continued. “At the same time, we will not stop trying to convince our American friends and President Trump that undermining this order makes no sense at all, because it would only play into the hands of those who seek a new post-West order where liberal democracy and its fundamental freedoms would cease to exist."
Other members of the group are Canada, France, Britain, Germany, Italy and Japan. Russia joined in 1997, several years after the fall of the Soviet Union, and was suspended in 2014 for its international aggressions, chiefly annexing Crimea.
Trump’s advocacy for Russia’s reinstatement drew bipartisan condemnation. Sen. Charles E. Schumer of New York, the Senate Democratic leader, said on Twitter: “The president’s support for inviting Russia back into the G-7, just after they meddled in the election to support his campaign, will leave millions of Americans with serious questions and suspicions.”
Sen. John McCain of Arizona, the Republican chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee, assailed Trump in a statement. “The president has inexplicably shown our adversaries the deference and esteem that should be reserved for our closest allies,” he wrote, while allies “are being treated with contempt.”
Sen. Jack Reed of Rhode Island, the senior Democrat on the Armed Services Committee, said Trump was “serving as Vladimir Putin’s cheerleader.”
Republican Sens. Jeff Flake of Arizona and Ben Sasse of Nebraska likewise weighed in, with Sasse tweeting that Putin “is a thug using Soviet-style aggression to wage a shadow war against America, and our leadership should act like it.”
Trump, in his remarks to reporters at the White House, and in his one-on-one meeting with Trudeau, reiterated his threat to withdraw from the two-decades-old North American Free Trade Agreement unless Canada and Mexico make concessions. As he sat next to Trudeau, he suggested he might negotiate separate deals with each country. Trudeau remained silent.
In the presence of his counterparts, Trump at least publicly showed none of the petulance of his tweets against them in the days before the summit. At his meeting with Macron, he flattered the French president, saying, “You’ve got courage; you’re doing the right thing.”
On its eve, however Trump had engaged in an increasingly acrimonious Twitter back-and-forth with Macron, and attacked Trudeau as well, over both leaders’ criticisms of his recent tariffs on steel and aluminum. Trudeau in pre-summit interviews had damned the tariffs as an insult to U.S. allies.
Both Macron and Trudeau had worked to court Trump in hopes of building a constructive personal relationship with their mercurial American counterpart. Yet both have been disappointed as Trump disregarded their pleas on the Paris climate accord, the Iran nuclear deal and tariffs.
After Macron tweeted on Thursday that the other leaders might sign a memorandum to work together without the American president, Trump lashed back. He complained in a tweetstorm, sometimes misleadingly, about existing trade barriers in the European Union and Canada and threatened to escalate the budding trade war that began with his tariffs.
Heather A. Conley, who served in the State Department under President George W. Bush, said the vast array of disputes between Trump and America’s traditional allies made the current transatlantic tensions more serious than any previously.
“This feels as if the United States is uprooting the international system that we designed,” Conley said. The G-7 in particular is important, she added, for being a coalition defined not only by economics but by values: “That’s why Russia’s not there, because they don’t share the values that you can’t invade an adversary’s territory.”
She warned that diplomacy in the Trump era may be entering “a values-free policy space. And that is shredding 70 years of American foreign policy and global leadership.”
In his wide-ranging 20-minute back-and-forth with reporters as he left the White House, Trump also reasserted his “absolute right” to pardon himself and said that more presidential pardons are in the offing as he reviews about 3,000 candidates for clemency, including dead celebrities — he mentioned boxing champion Muhammad Ali, though Ali’s draft-dodging conviction was overturned by the Supreme Court nearly 50 years ago.
Trump also said that embattled Environmental Protection Agency administrator Scott Pruitt was “doing a great job,” though he added that Pruitt was not “blameless” in the many controversies swirling around him.
Stokols is a special correspondent.
Times staff writer Noah Bierman in Washington contributed to this report.