Jolting another international summit before it’s even begun, President Trump on Thursday abruptly canceled a much-anticipated meeting with Russian President Vladimir Putin, less than an hour after telling reporters he expected it to occur at this weekend’s summit of developed nations in Argentina.
The president cited Russia’s seizure this week of three Ukrainian naval vessels and 24 sailors in announcing his decision on Twitter, shortly after Air Force One took off for the Group of 20 summit in Buenos Aires.
The development followed the morning news that the president’s former lawyer, Michael Cohen, had pleaded guilty to lying to Congress. Cohen acknowledged that, with Trump’s knowledge, he had negotiated during the 2016 presidential campaign over building a Trump tower in Moscow. That is longer than previously known, and contrary to Trump’s repeated claims of having no economic interests in Russia.
“Based on the fact that the ships and sailors have not been returned to Ukraine from Russia, I have decided it would be best for all parties concerned to cancel my previously scheduled meeting,” Trump tweeted from Air Force One.
He added, “I look forward to a meaningful Summit again as soon as this situation is resolved!”
Trump also downgraded planned one-on-one sessions with South Korean President Moon Jae-in and Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan to less formal meetings. Besides attending the general sessions of the annual G-20 gathering, the president also plans to have dinner on Saturday with China’s President Xi Jinping, amid a trade war between their two nations.
As he departed the White House, Trump told reporters he would receive an update on the plane about the impasse between Russia and Ukraine, but he suggested no hitch in his plans to meet with Putin.
“I think it’s a very good time to have the meeting,” he said.
His reversal came within an hour. Press Secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders told reporters accompanying Trump that he was briefed shortly after takeoff about the hostilities in Ukraine — Russia’s most brazen incursion in the region since its 2014 annexation of Crimea — by Chief of Staff John F. Kelly, Secretary of State Michael R. Pompeo and national security advisor John Bolton. Bolton called in from Brazil.
Trump has faced rising calls from lawmakers in both parties and foreign policy experts to stand up to Putin over his latest violation of Ukraine’s sovereignty, a matter carrying far-reaching security implications.
Legal and political considerations entered into the president’s decision as well, given the news of his former fixer’s deal with special counsel Robert S. Mueller III. Cohen has agreed to provide additional information in the investigation into possible collusion between the Trump campaign and Russia. The president recently submitted written answers to questions from Mueller.
In a court filing, Cohen acknowledged lying to Congress about then-candidate Trump’s desire to build a Trump development in Moscow, about his own contacts with Russians, and about how many times he had discussed his dealings involving the Russian project with Trump and Trump’s family members.
As he left the White House, Trump brushed off the news, dismissing Cohen, his longtime personal attorney, as “a weak person and not a very smart person.”
Trump added, “So he's lying, very simply, to get a reduced sentence. OK?”
The president’s cancellation of his meeting with Putin appeared to catch Russian officials off guard. Sanders said she was “not aware” of any call between the president and Putin about it, but that “there was some back-and-forth between U.S. and Russian officials through other channels.
“We've only seen the tweet and reports,” Putin spokesman Dmitry Peskov said. “We don't have any official information.” Peskov said that absent a meeting with Trump, Putin “will have a couple extra hours in his schedule for useful meetings.”
The sudden development confounded U.S. observers as well.
“It is curious that at 8 a.m. the Putin meeting was on and at 10 a.m. the meeting was off. It appears the president needs to look tough on Russia all of the sudden,” said Nicholas Burns, a former U.S. ambassador to NATO, noting that Trump had been silent for days on Russia’s transgression.
“It was clear four days ago what happened in the Kerch Strait,” Burns added. “As of today, the Russians are still blocking the Kerch Strait.”
“Whether he did it for political reasons or strategic reasons, I hope the Russians understand the impact of this,” Burns continued. “By canceling the meeting, this is a pushback against Putin and one of the first times he's ever done that.”
In an interview earlier this week, Petro Poroshenko, Ukraine’s president, had urged Trump to deliver a stern message to Putin. Rachel Rizzo, a Russia expert at the Center for a New American Security, said it “would have been much more powerful for Trump to meet with Putin and rebuke him face-to-face.”
“There are still many foreign policy issues that must be discussed between the United States and Russia,” she said. “Canceling diplomatic meetings only increases the chance for miscommunications and miscalculations.”
In Washington, Trump received backing from Republicans. Sen. Lindsey Graham of South Carolina, a frequent critic of Putin, tweeted that the president’s action was “a show of strength and resolve that will be beneficial over time.” Sen. Rob Portman of Ohio said in a tweet that it was “a strong rebuke.”
Alexis Mrachek, a Russia researcher at the conservative Heritage Foundation, who’d earlier called on Trump to cancel the meeting, called it “great news” and urged him to “capitalize upon the international spotlight of the G-20 summit” by demanding that Putin return Ukraine’s ships and sailors.
Also at the G-20 summit, the United States, Mexico and Canada plan a ceremony to sign their revised free-trade agreement on Friday. Even so, persisting differences over the language of the new pact delayed an announcement on specifics about the event.
“It won’t be celebratory for the Canadians,” said Patrick Leblond, a senior fellow at the Center for International Governance Innovation in Ontario, capturing the still-icy mood in relations after Trump’s hardball negotiating tactics, which included imposing tariffs on Canadian metals.
The weekend’s main event will be Trump’s private dinner Saturday with China’s Xi. World leaders gathered in the Argentine capital are anxiously looking on as the pair of strong-willed leaders of the two largest economies flirt with a new cold war that could roil the global economy.
Some have called on Trump and Xi to pull back from their escalating trade conflict. Christine Lagarde, managing director of the International Monetary Fund, warned of economic clouds already looming after several years of global growth, in part thanks to the cooperation among G-20 leaders 10 years ago to fight the financial crisis.
Once again, Lagarde said, “The global economy faces a critical juncture.”
Trump has sent mixed signals about making a trade deal with Xi, and did so again Thursday.
“I think we’re very close to doing something with China,” he said. Then he added, “I don’t know that I want to do it. Because what we have right now is billions and billions of dollars coming into the United States in the form of tariffs or taxes. So I really don’t know.”
Trump has good reasons to cut a deal. The trouncing of Republicans in the midterm election was a warning to the president for 2020, and he can’t afford to have the economy falter ahead of his reelection bid. A cease-fire in the tit-for-tat tariffs with China would likely give a boost to the wobbly stock market.
At the same time, Trump can hardly afford to be seen as soft on China. That would be unpopular with some of his populist, working-class supporters and with many lawmakers in the House, soon to be led by Democrats.
It remains to be seen just how much Xi will give. Eric Miller, a global fellow at the Wilson Center, said China will have to offer, at a minimum, a reopening of their big soybean market — a major issue for American farmers — plus commitments to boost American exports and address China’s theft of U.S. intellectual property.
“This is going to be the epic showdown that will be seen 20 years from now as the pivotal moment in how China and U.S. relations play out,” Miller said.
Staff writer Noah Bierman in Washington contributed to this report.