TORONTO — He sent his regrets.
Prime Minister Justin Trudeau confirmed on Monday he won’t attend a meeting in Washington this week with President Donald Trump and President Andrés Manuel López Obrador of Mexico. The meeting was meant to celebrate the official start of the new trade deal between the three countries — the United States-Mexico-Canada Agreement (U.S.M.C.A.).
Mr. Trudeau’s reason for not attending? Scheduling conflicts, he said.
He has virtual cabinet meetings and a “long-planned” session in Parliament on Wednesday, when the Washington summit is scheduled to begin.
That Mr. Trudeau would choose not to fly to Washington to celebrate what many consider one of his most important accomplishments to date — securing the pact with his country’s biggest, and in recent times, most temperamental, trading partner — was striking.
He and his team spent more than a year feverishly working on closing the deal, often dropping everything to rush to Washington. But the pressure evaporated in November 2018, when it was officially signed.
And since the coronavirus pandemic reached Canada, the prime minister has become the country’s model for following new medical guidelines on virus-spreading prevention, which include wearing a mask and avoiding travel.
“Will Trump be wearing a mask in the meeting?” asked Roland Paris, a professor of international affairs at the University of Ottawa, and a former foreign policy adviser to Mr. Trudeau. Would Mr. Trump stand closer than two meters away?
“I don’t think Trudeau has any interest in being drawn into American debates on mask-wearing and appropriate health precautions during an epidemic,” Mr. Paris said.
While President Trump has continually underplayed the severity of the virus, and even mocked people for wearing masks, Mr. Trudeau became the first G7 leader to self-isolate after his wife came down with flulike symptoms and later tested positive for Covid-19 in March.
For two weeks, Mr. Trudeau juggled the country’s response to the pandemic from his home study, caring for the couple’s three young children without the help of his usual political aides or personal staff. He didn’t get a test himself because, at that time, doctors were advising only those with symptoms to get tested, and he had none.
It would also look hypocritical for the prime minister to dash into the United States for a quick trip when his government officially shut the border in March to anything but essential travel, experts said.
“It’s not clear that a photo op counts as essential,” said Mr. Paris.
Polls have consistently shown the majority of Canadians want the U.S.-Canada border to remain closed for safety reasons. While new cases of the novel coronavirus surge to record levels in many parts of the United States, they have dropped across Canada to levels similar to March. To date, around 8,700 Canadians have died from the disease.
“It would be really awkward for the prime minister to go when, in all likelihood, the border is not going to open, given the escalating cases in the United States,” said Janice Stein, the founding director of the University of Toronto’s Munk School of Global Affairs.
Not everyone agreed.
“It’s a rookie mistake for him not to go,” said John Higginbotham, a senior fellow at Carleton University in Ottawa who served as the second-highest-ranking Canadian diplomat in Washington for six years. “That’s the president to have in front of us. There are so many issues to be discussed. There’s so much turbulence internationally, then there’s long-term trade, and economic cooperation between our countries and the opening of the border.”
And Mr. Trump “may take this as a slight,” Mr. Higginbotham added.
Mr. Trudeau has been at the receiving end of Mr. Trump’s quick-twitch anger before.
The president was so furious with Mr. Trudeau when he said Canadians would not be pushed around at the end of the G7 summit in Canada in 2018 that he lashed out on Twitter, calling his host “very dishonest and weak” as he departed the country.
In recent weeks, the Trump administration discussed reimposing tariffs on Canadian aluminum over concerns about rising exports to the United States.
Mr. Trudeau did promise Mr. Obrador a visit “as soon as possible” over the phone.
When that would be, his staff would not say.