President Donald Trump’s announcement Saturday that he is postponing an in-person summit of the G7 ends, for now, what had been a hurried effort to arrange a major gathering of world leaders while also assuaging those leaders’ fears it was safe to assemble during the coronavirus pandemic.
It became clear to the White House late last week that convening an in-person G7 economic summit on US soil would likely be impossible by the end of June, particularly with the addition of several other countries Trump said Saturday he wants to include in the meeting, people familiar with the matter told CNN.
German Chancellor Angela Merkel’s announcement that she “cannot confirm” she would participate due to concerns over coronavirus helped cement the decision, those people said.
Speaking aboard Air Force One, Trump framed the decision to delay the meeting until September as a way to rethink the traditional gathering of several of the world’s leading economies.
“I don’t feel that as a G7 it properly represents what’s going on in the world. It’s a very outdated group of countries,” he said. Later, aides indicated he was seeking a larger group that could act as a counterweight to China, whose relationship with the United States reached a nadir last week amid disputes over coronavirus and Hong Kong.
Still, concerns among leaders about traveling to the United States – which still has a ban in place on travel from Europe and has closed its border with Canada to non-essential travel – helped motivate the decision, people familiar with the matter said.
In a phone call with Trump on Saturday, French President Emmanuel Macron argued that in order to convene in-person, the entire group needed to be present, one western official familiar with the matter said. Macron and Merkel have been tightly aligned at past G7 meetings in representing European interests.
Over the past week or so, Trump had also raised internally the notion of inviting other countries to participate in the summit, an idea that would prove more logistically challenging than just the six other G7 nations, the sources familiar with the matter said. He named Russia, South Korea, Australia and India as potential invitees to this year’s gathering.
“I think what the President is thinking is that this is a time when the entire world is trying to come out of Covid,” national security adviser Robert O’Brien told reporters at the White House on Sunday morning.
“The President’s thinking was, there are a couple of countries that have handled the Covid crisis incredibly well, and it would be useful to have them participate in the G7 so we can learn some lessons there,” he said. “Logistically to pull something like that off, I think it will take a little bit more time, so we’re probably looking at the September time frame.”
Trump had coordinated extensively with Macron as he worked to revive the in-person summit in June, but his announcement earlier in May that he wanted to bring leaders to Camp David in a month’s time caught fellow governments off guard, CNN has previously reported.
A major undertaking
The countries had not been informed ahead of time that Trump would be announcing the possibility of holding a summit that would involve traveling even as restrictions and quarantine orders remained in place.
The initial announcement drew skeptical responses from foreign capitals as governments waited for the US to spell out what safety measures would be in place for the in-person summit. White House officials said Trump was serious about the proposal but acknowledged such a summit would be a major undertaking. Normally such a major meeting requires many months of planning that was going to be compressed into a month’s time.
Initially Camp David was floated as the venue before switching to the White House, which aides said would be easier for leaders to access and for officials to prepare for a summit.
But questions about the size of the delegations, the logistics of travel, accommodations and security – which is typically extremely tight at G7 summits – were all still being weighed, according to the people familiar with the planning, along with pandemic precautions when the decision, announced Saturday, was made to delay until at least September.
While Trump on Saturday also floated the possibility of holding the gathering after November’s election, such a meeting could conflict with the G20 summit scheduled for mid-November in Riyadh. The G20 is a larger gathering of the world’s major economies, which also includes China.
With the additional countries Trump has suggested adding to his summit it’s not clear leaders would agree to two major gatherings in the same month.
Also unclear is how other G7 leaders will respond to the idea of inviting Russia, which Trump suggested Saturday, back into the group. Merkel in particular has been adamantly opposed when Trump raised the idea previously, including during a heated dinner meeting underneath the Biarritz lighthouse at last year’s G7, CNN has previously reported.
Trump intends the larger group, including Russia, to act as a counter to China – a rationale for inviting Russia that could prove more palatable to some countries.