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Trudeau holds high-level talks in Washington as he faces pressure to boost defence spending

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau has been taking the temperature of Canada-U.S. relations in a series of high-level political and economic meetings ahead of the NATO Summit in Washington.

On Capitol Hill on Tuesday morning, he met with a bipartisan group of U.S. senators that included Democratic majority leader Chuck Schumer and Senate Republican leader Mitch McConnell.

That followed a meeting Monday with Joshua Bolten, the chief executive officer of the influential U.S. Business Roundtable.

In May, a group of 23 U.S. Democratic and Republican senators signed a letter to Trudeau urging the Liberal government to increase its defence spending to the two per cent of gross domestic product benchmark agreed to by NATO allies in 2023.

Senator Mitch McConnell, Canadian Ambassador to the United States Kirsten Hillman, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau and Senate Majority leader Charles Schumer pose for a photo before meeting on Capitol Hill on Tuesday, July 9, 2024 in Washington, D.C. (Adrian Wyld/The Canadian Press)

The letter was an extraordinary end-run around the Biden administration, which generally has taken a measured approach to dealing with Canada’s defence spending.

Going into Tuesday’s meetings with U.S. Senate leaders, Trudeau was only asked by journalists about the ongoing health concerns involving President Joe Biden — a question the prime minister deflected.

Canada’s Ambassador to the U.S. Kirsten Hillman said she has not met with the senators who signed the letter but has had contact with some of them through a bipartisan committee of American lawmakers who deal with U.S.-Canada relations.

WATCH: Elections, defence spending likely to dominate NATO summit   

Elections, defence spending likely to dominate NATO summit

Recent elections in the U.K. and Europe as well as the upcoming U.S. election are one issue expected to dominate the agenda at the 75th NATO summit. The other will be defence spending — including Canada failing to meet a two per cent spending target.

She said security discussions with the U.S. are about more than just the NATO two per cent standard.

“The conversations are not one-note. They’re complicated,” Hillman told Canadian reporters. “They’re serious, and we are taken very seriously.”

The meeting with the business roundtable was significant because Canada’s top business leaders warned Trudeau last month in a letter that the country faces diplomatic and economic isolation if it doesn’t present NATO with a clear, verifiable plan to reach the alliance’s spending target.

Speaking for the business council on Monday, Bolten, who served as a White House chief of staff in the George W. Bush administration, struck a firm but conciliatory note.

“We face common challenges, not only in the security environment, which you’re here to talk with other NATO leaders about, but also in the economic environment,” Bolten said. “And the United States has no closer economic partner than Canada to face those challenges.”

In a readout following the meeting, the Prime Minister’s Office said Trudeau and Bolten emphasized the importance of secure, resilient supply chains to keep the Canada-U.S. industrial base strong.

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