U.S. President Donald Trump speaks to members of the media before boarding Marine One on the South Lawn of the White House in Washington, D.C., on June 8, 2018. (Photographer: Andrew Harrer/Bloomberg)

Trump Breaks With G-7 to Urge Russia Return, Jabs `Unfair Trade'

(Bloomberg) -- President Donald Trump said Russia should be allowed back into the G-8 bloc, lobbing another point of friction into an-already fraught summit Friday with allies in Canada.

“Russia should be in this meeting,” Trump told reporters in Washington as he left the White House to fly to Canada. “Why are we having a meeting without Russia being in the meeting?"

“Whether you like it or not, and it may not be politically correct, but we have a world to run, and in the G-7 which used to be the G-8, they threw Russia out,” he said. “They should let Russia come back in because we should have Russia at the negotiating table.”

Trump’s comments threw another wrench into the Group of Seven gathering underway in the scenic Charlevoix region just north of the Maine border. He will miss at least some of the summit’s second day after speculation he’d cancel his appearance entirely amid public criticism from allies over steel and aluminum tariffs imposed by the U.S. in recent weeks. Instead, he appears ready to fire back with his America First mantra.

"Looking forward to straightening out unfair Trade Deals with the G-7 countries. If it doesn’t happen, we come out even better!” the president wrote on Twitter Friday. Talks will “mostly center on the long time unfair trade practiced against the United States.”

Trump’s Russia comment won a quick endorsement from Italian Prime Minister Giuseppe Conte, who said on Twitter that Russia’s re-admission would be “in everybody’s interest.” The new government in Rome has previously said that sanctions on Russia damaged Italy’s agriculture industry and its design and handicraft sectors.

Russia joined the G-7 in 1998. After its annexation of Crimea, the other seven members shrunk the bloc and effectively kicked Russia out until further notice, starting with a summit in 2014.

"We focus on other formats,” Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov told the official Tass news agency in response to Trump’s comments, referring to groups like the G-20. President Vladimir Putin was in China Friday, where he and President Xi Jinping touted their close ties.

Engage, Beware

Trump’s gambit may further inflame tensions with other leaders, including British Prime Minister Theresa May. Britain’s relations with Russia are at their worst since the Cold War, following the poisoning of former spy Sergei Skripal and his daughter in the English town of Salisbury this year. After years in which Russia’s wealthy were invited to base themselves in London without questions being asked about how they made their money, the Home Office is reviewing visas.

“We’ve always been clear that we should engage with Russia, but the phrase I’ve used is engage but beware,” May said Friday. “And let’s remember why the G-8 became the G-7, it was because Russia illegally annexed Crimea, and before any conversations of this sort can happen, we have to ensure that Russia is actually mending its ways and taking a different route.”

German Chancellor Angela Merkel told reporters on the sidelines of the summit that Russia’s return to the group couldn’t happen without substantial progress on the Ukraine issue. “That was the common opinion” among European nations, she said.

Mattis Remarks

Trump’s comments appear to have caught his own administration off-guard. Defense Secretary James Mattis spoke on Friday about Russia, but to cite it as a danger to Western security.

“Threats to our collective security have not waned, whether terrorism to the south or Russia’s aggression and hybrid threats to the east,” Mattis told reporters in Brussels after a meeting of defense ministers from the North Atlantic Treaty Organization.

"Canada’s position has not changed," Chantal Gagnon, a spokeswoman for Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, said in an email. Senate Democratic Leader Chuck Schumer said in a statement that Trump was turning U.S. foreign policy “into an international joke" and needs to “be able to distinguish between our allies and adversaries, and to treat each accordingly. On issue after issue, he’s failed to do that."

Republican John McCain, chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee, said Russia had not changed, citing its daily “assault” on democratic institutions around the world. Trump, he said, was showing U.S. adversaries the deference that should be reserved for its closest allies.

‘Lucky number’

Trump was greeted by Trudeau just after noon local time, as part of official welcomes that kicked off the two-day summit, an icon of post-war western collaboration. The leaders later posed for the traditional "family" photograph.

Trump has had a volatile relationship with Russia over that nation’s efforts to disrupt the American presidential election in 2016. Under Trump, the U.S. has sanctioned several Russians close to Putin and his circle. Election meddling has also been the focus of an investigation by Special Counsel Robert Mueller, who has been looking into whether any Trump associates colluded in Russian efforts.

The Austrian government has offered to host a summit between Trump and Putin, potentially echoing a historic Cold War meeting there between a newly-elected President John F. Kennedy and Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev, according to a White House official who was granted anonymity to discuss the matter.

‘Thoughtful Person’

Tass quoted Putin as saying, in a pre-recorded interview for state TV, that Trump was a “thoughtful person."

“He knows how to listen and to respond to arguments," Putin was cited as saying. “This all gives me grounds to believe a dialogue could be constructive."

Despite the Russia development, the issue of tariffs may loom largest over Friday’s talks. France’s Emmanuel Macron has warned he won’t sign a joint statement unless Trump makes concessions on trade. “The American President may not mind being isolated, but neither do we mind signing a 6 country agreement if need be,” he tweeted. German Chancellor Angela Merkel told reporters that it was unclear if a summit communique would be issued, or rather a chairman’s statement by the meeting host.

The G-7 summit is shaping up to be the most acrimonious in years, putting pressure on Trudeau as host to bridge a divide between Trump and Europe, with Japan’s Shinzo Abe poised to fall somewhere in the middle. Trump will leave the summit early to attend a summit in Singapore with North Korean leader Kim Jong Un on Tuesday.

©2018 Bloomberg L.P.