For months, Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau’s hair kept growing.
As the coronavirus pandemic kept barbershops closed to customers, his tidy trim grew into a wave that evolved eventually into a mop with bangs. For some, the mane came to embody the shared sacrifices that Trudeau – quarantined at his home in Ottawa – was asking fellow Canadians to endure to stop the spread of coronavirus.
Things progressed differently 450 miles south in Washington.
President Donald Trump’s hair has appeared unchanged during the crisis as he makes no attempt to model the guidelines and recommendations his government is recommending to stay safe – including wearing a mask, avoiding large crowds and limiting travel to essential business only.
On Wednesday, the differences in the two approaches will be front and center as Trump marks the official beginning of the new North American trade agreement that is a signature achievement for all three participating governments: the United States, Mexico and Canada.
While Mexico’s President accepted Trump’s invitation to participate in the ceremony, Trudeau did not.
“We wish the United States and Mexico well at Wednesday’s meeting,” the prime minister’s office said. “While there were recent discussions about the possible participation of Canada, the Prime Minister will be in Ottawa this week for scheduled Cabinet meetings and the long-planned sitting of Parliament.”
Last week, Trudeau himself said he was still in discussions about whether a trip to the United States “makes sense,” saying while he was troubled by the threat of new US tariffs on steel and aluminum, “we’re also concerned about the health situation and the coronavirus reality that is still hitting all three of our countries.”
Trudeau’s decision to forgo travel to Washington comes as Trump’s attempts to diminish or deny the health crisis are causing his political standing to crater – which, in turn, has caused Trump to retrench in racist politics and culture wars. Earlier this month, when Trudeau was asked about the violent dispersal of peaceful protesters outside the White House after which Trump staged a photo-op near a church, the prime minister responded with an uncomfortable 20-second pause before saying he was watching the situation with “horror and consternation.”
Given a chance this week to participate in his own photo-op with Trump, Trudeau declined – a decision hard to imagine earlier in Trump’s tenure, when world leaders flocked to the White House for obvious shows of flattery.
The sense among many officials at the Canadian embassy in Washington is that Trudeau has chosen to buy time and deal with Trump as infrequently as possible until the US general election in November, one senior Canadian official said. Trudeau, who has faced his own share of political problems in Canada, is trying to focus his energy now on the domestic response to coronavirus, instead of getting dragged in to the White House photo-op in a country now grappling with record-high coronavirus cases, this person said.
The decision to skip the event in Washington is the second time Trudeau has balked at the prospect of crossing the still-closed US-Canada border for a meeting with Trump; after the President floated an in-person meeting of the G7 to be convened in June, the prime minister (along with most other G7 leaders) said he’d only consider it if proper safety measures were in place.
Rushing to Washington now, as cases again surge in the United States, would also put Trudeau at risk of violating the very guidelines he was worked arduously to model himself as his country weathers the global health crisis. The border between the two countries remains closed except for essential travel, a status many Canadians support maintaining as cases spike in the United States.
When his wife tested positive for Covid-19 in March, Trudeau entered self-quarantine at Rideau Cottage, his official brick Georgian revival residence in Ottawa, where he solo-parented his three children while also running the government. He’s remained more or less in the same place since, though did get a haircut when barbershops were allowed to reopen in Ottawa in mid-June.
The US approach
Trump, meanwhile, has adopted a different approach. Buoyed by an intensive testing regimen that White House aides say protects him from contacting the virus, Trump has traveled around the country on both official and political travel, including to states where case counts are surging.
While some of his events are designed to assess the country’s response to the virus – including tours of mask factories and medical distribution centers – other trips stretch the definition of “essential,” including campaign rallies and fundraising jaunts.
Trump has similarly ignored government guidance on avoiding large crowds, convening a major audience (though still smaller than he was expecting) at a rally in Tulsa and at July 4 celebrations at Mount Rushmore and on the White House South Lawn. At none of those events were many attendees wearing masks, and Trump’s refusal to wear a mask in public is, by now, a defining feature of his coronavirus response. Trudeau has been pictured wearing a mask several times.
Months into the outbreak, the two men confront very different national health situations. Cases are spiking in the United States, a phenomenon Trump has blamed on more widespread testing. In Canada, daily case numbers have steadily fallen and are now close to levels seen in March.
Canada had 399 new cases on Monday, according to its Public Health Agency. The United States had just over 47,000.
On Wednesday, Trump plans to host Mexican President Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador without Trudeau, including for talks in the Oval Office, a ceremony marking the new trade deal and an evening dinner at the White House that will include representatives of the business community.
Lopez Obrador said before departing Mexico that he had tested negative for coronavirus. Like the President of Poland, who was Trump’s first foreign visitor amid the coronavirus pandemic, the Mexican delegation is expected to be tested before arriving at the White House.
The trip to Washington marks Lopez Obrador’s first since taking office in 2018. Instead of using the presidential aircraft, he flew commercially with a layover, sitting in an economy class exit row with his advisers, a mask over his face for the duration of the trip.
Trump once sought to establish close ties with a number of younger, male world leaders who he believed he could influence, including Trudeau and French President Emmanuel Macron. Shunning protocol, Trump went as far as to give both men his personal cell phone number. Several administration officials said that Trudeau was known to take advantage of the direct line to the American president, and regularly called his cell phone, particularly during contentious negotiations over the new trade deal.
However, Trump is vastly unpopular among Canadians and Trudeau gradually realized that close ties to this American president may be a liability, not an asset, these people said, and he has increasingly opted to distance himself from Trump.
In December, a video emerged from a private gathering at the NATO summit which appeared to show Trudeau and Macron making fun of Trump.
In his book, Trump’s former national security adviser John Bolton writes that Trump doesn’t particularly like Trudeau (or, for that matter, Macron).
“He tolerated them, mockingly crossing swords with them in meetings, kidding on the straight,” Bolton writes. “I assume they understood what he was doing, and they responded in kind, playing along because it suited their larger interests not to be in a permanent tiff with the US President.”