The “Three Amigos” gathering of the leaders of the U.S., Canada and Mexico on Thursday will be missing one of the staples of the summit: the joint news conference featuring all three leaders.
It’s the first in-person gathering of the leaders since 2016, before Donald Trump was elected president. Mr. Trump’s relationship with the Canadian and Mexican leaders was strained by the tariffs he imposed, although later, he and Mexican President Andrés Manuel López Obrador grew friendlier. That wasn’t the case with Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, whom Mr. Trump famously disparaged as “two-faced.”
Mr. Biden pitched himself as the return of normalcy and tradition when running for office against Mr. Trump, so skipping the press conference came as something of a surprise to White House reporters this week. In all eight summits held since their inception in 2005, there has been a trilateral press conference. Former President Obama hosted press conferences with his Canadian and Mexican counterparts in 2012, as did former President Bush in 2008 and 2005.
At that last 2016 news conference, reporters were able to ask tough, even uncomfortable questions of Mr. Obama, Trudeau, and then Mexican President Enrique Peña Nieto — in particular, about their responses to Mr. Trump’s GOP nomination, victory and the future relations between the U.S. and Mexico on issues like NAFTA and migration.
“Whoever becomes the president of the United States is going to have a deep, strong interest in having a strong relationship with Mexico. It’s our neighbor, our friend and one of our biggest trading partners,” Mr. Obama said at the time. “I think I’ve made myself clear, setting aside whatever the candidates are saying, that America is a nation of immigrants. That’s our strength.”
Without a press conference Thursday, Mr. Biden will not be forced to answer questions about his decision to continue with Title 42, a controversial public health policy used at the Mexican border to rapidly expel migrants based on concerns about COVID-19. Mr. Biden has been roundly criticized by progressives and immigration advocates for continuing to rely on it to try to keep the numbers at the border down. A U.S. District Court judge in Texas has also determined the Biden administration improperly ended the “Remain in Mexico Policy.”
Nonetheless, the summit and news conference have generally projected a kind of continental unity, one that may have peaked during the Obama years.
Last week, White House press secretary Jen Psaki said she thought a press conference had been planned. But no press conference appeared on the president’s Thursday schedule released Wednesday night. The president does have a bill signing prior to his meetings with Trudeau and Obrador, and as always, it’s possible he could take questions then.
Trudeau may be going it alone with the press at his own availability Thursday evening at the Canadian Embassy, according to the prime minister’s schedule. The Mexican government has not yet said whether Obrador will hold a solo press conference after the meeting.
Mexico’s Foreign Minister Marcelo Ebrard told CBS News during a press conference he held Wednesday that the resolution from the three leaders is “more precise” than a press conference.
Asked Wednesday about a joint press conference, White House deputy press secretary Chris Meagher said there would be “pool sprays” — that is, opportunities before meetings begin. In these brief on-camera moments, reporters have the chance to yell out questions, but leaders can just ignore the questions.
One reporter asked the White House on Wednesday whether the lack of the news conference could be chalked up to recent comments Mr. Biden has made that had to be “cleaned up” by the White House press office.
“You guys (the press office) had to clean up not only [Mr. Biden’s] Olympic comment, but his comment on the timing for the Fed [chair nomination] and his Taiwan comment. Is the worry that you don’t want the president taking questions,” Bloomberg’s Justin Sink asked Meagher.
In addition to the pool sprays, Meagher responded that “the president often takes questions throughout the course of the day, throughout the course of trips, throughout the course of his day at the White House.”
Thursday’s meetings are likely to have some contentious moments, aside from immigration matters. Canada and the U.S. have sparred over tariffs.
Though Mr. Trump did not host a North American Leaders Summit with his Mexican and Canadian counterparts, he met with them individually and at events elsewhere, and he was able to get a new trade agreement signed.
The three leaders plan to address economic challenges they face, COVID-19, climate change and other pressing issues. The White House says the three nations will “reaffirm their strong ties and integration while also charting a new path for collaboration on ending the COVID-19 pandemic and advancing health security; competitiveness and equitable growth, to include climate change; and a regional vision for migration.”
— CBS News’ Arden Farhi and Jacob Rosen contributed to this report.