President Trump’s harsh insults and boorish behavior have dominated and divided one international gathering after another in recent months, leaving acrimony in his wake at a Group of 7 meeting in Quebec, a NATO summit in Brussels and a World War I centennial ceremony in Paris.
As he leaves Thursday for a Group of 20 economic summit in Buenos Aires, Trump is shadowed by controversies involving one autocrat whom he will formally meet — Russian President Vladimir Putin — and another whom he will not — Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman.
Trump also may find himself partly overshadowed for the first time. The de facto Saudi leader will be making his first appearance on the global stage since he was alleged to have ordered a gruesome assassination of Jamal Khashoggi, a political critic based in Virginia. Other world leaders must decide whether — and how — to deal with him.
Trump has staunchly defended the crown prince, saying “maybe he did and maybe he didn’t” order the Oct. 2 slaying in Turkey, and dismissing calls in Congress to censure or sanction Riyadh by arguing arms sales outweigh human rights concerns. White House officials said Trump would not sit down with Mohammed at the G-20 but they did not rule out an informal interaction between the two.
National security advisor John Bolton told reporters at the White House that the decision not to hold a bilateral meeting during the two-day summit, which starts Friday, was due to Trump’s “overflowing” schedule, not a signal that Trump was snubbing the crown prince. But others breathed a small sigh of relief.
“There are close calls in this line of work but this is not one of them,” said Christopher R. Hill, a former U.S. ambassador to four countries. A presidential meeting with Mohammed so soon after his alleged role in a vicious crime would be “unfathomable,” he said.
Other analysts say the Saudis are hoping to signal that the crown prince — strongly supported by Trump — has weathered the global vilification and remains in firm control of the oil-rich kingdom.
“This is a decision from the Saudis … partly drawing on what they see as President Trump’s reaction,” said Jon Alterman, who heads the Middle East program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, a nonpartisan think tank in Washington. “They’re moving ahead, and the crown prince is the person to deal with if you’re going to deal with Saudi Arabia.”
Since taking office, Trump has embraced a bevy of foreign dictators and adversaries — but none more so than Putin.
At their summit in July in Helsinki, Finland, Trump offered fawning praise for the Russian autocrat and said he believed Putin’s denials instead of U.S. intelligence community conclusions when it came to the Kremlin’s interference in the 2016 election. That sparked such a political storm in Washington that Trump later was forced to backtrack, claiming he had misspoken.
Trump and Putin are scheduled to sit down again Saturday in Buenos Aires, although the plans could change.
If the session is anything like Helsinki — where the two leaders met privately for two hours without any senior aides, a stunning breach of normal summitry — it could throw the already fraught gathering into chaos and further isolate the Trump administration from its traditional allies.
Trump has yet to publicly criticize Moscow for the seizure Sunday by Russian warships of three Ukrainian naval vessels and their crews in a strait that separates Crimea and Russia. The 24 captured crew members were put on a show trial and in a supposed confession they said the Ukrainian ships sought to “provoke” Russia, a claim that Ukraine — a U.S. ally — vehemently denied.
On Tuesday, Trump told the Washington Post that he was awaiting a “full report” from his national security team and that he might yet cancel the meeting with Putin.
“That will be very determinative,” Trump said. “Maybe I won’t have the meeting. Maybe I won’t even have the meeting.… I don’t like that aggression. I don’t want that aggression at all.”
Sarah Sanders, the White House spokeswoman, said Wednesday that Trump had received multiple briefings on the incident but she did not announce any change in Trump’s plans. Ukraine's president, Petro Poroshenko, has publicly asked Trump to deliver a stern message to Putin to "get out from Ukraine."
Bolton told reporters that Trump wanted to discuss security and regional issues with Putin, including the civil war in Syria — where Washington and Moscow back opposing sides — and preservation of the New START and INF arms control agreements, among other concerns.
“I think it will be a continuation of their discussion in Helsinki,” Bolton said.
For now, the maritime clash has raised worries of a wider conflict between Ukraine and Russia, which seized Crimea in 2014 and still supports armed separatists in eastern Ukraine — as well as widespread criticism of Trump for giving Putin a tacit green light by remaining silent.
“There is a disturbing pattern of Putin taking aggressive action and violating international law and President Trump turning a blind eye,” said Sen. Jack Reed (D-R.I.), senior Democrat on the Armed Services Committee. Trump’s “unwillingness to criticize Putin or take any actions to effectively deter Russia’s provocative behavior has emboldened Russia, and it is harming our national security and that of our allies and partners.”
“This isn’t just an attack on Ukraine, it’s an affront to the international community,” said Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.). “Unfortunately, President Trump has remained largely silent on the issue, refusing to speak out against these actions.”
The Kremlin hopes a Trump-Putin meeting will help ease some of the tensions between Washington and Moscow, a relationship largely overshadowed by the special counsel investigation into whether Trump’s associates or aides cooperated with a Kremlin-backed effort to influence the 2016 presidential election through the hacking and release of Democratic Party emails.
Prodded by Congress, the Trump administration has imposed economic sanctions on many of Russia’s key economic sectors, most recently for the attempted assassination of a former Russian spy and his daughter in southern England.
Putin wants to improve relations with Washington but on Russia’s terms, said Heather Conley, director of the Europe program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies.
“Putin wants parity with the U.S., which is why we see this Cold War-like language being used,” Conley said. “Russia would like to see things return to … when the U.S. and Russia were the world’s great superpowers.”
Trump may prove less supportive than before. Putin has done little to rein in Iranian militants in Syria and elsewhere in the Middle East, as the White House wants, and the clash with Ukraine has put the president on the spot.
Previous discussions between the two leaders “have centered around a goal that both of them share, which is creating a cooperative relationship,” said Stephen Sestanovich, a Russia expert at the nonpartisan Council on Foreign Relations. “Now that context is rather different. Disagreements are piling up.”
Trump also will hold bilateral talks in Argentina with the host nation’s president, Mauricio Macri; Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe; German Chancellor Angela Merkel; South Korean President Moon Jae-in; and President Recep Tayyip Erdogan of Turkey. He will have dinner on Saturday night, after the summit closes, with Chinese President Xi Jinping.
Trump will meet first with Macri at the Casa Rosada, or "Pink House,” the presidential residence. It faces the historic Plaza de Mayo, which could be filled with protesters this weekend. Argentina designated Friday a national holiday to try to keep the city less congested.
Given Trump’s disruptive behavior at other recent global gatherings, his focus on one-on-one meetings may be welcomed by many of the 20 nations attending the summit, said Thomas Wright, a senior fellow at the nonpartisan Brookings Institution in Washington.
“The response of the allies has been to try to remove opportunities for a serious breakdown” of the G-20, said Wright. They want to “show multilateralism is dormant at the moment but not necessarily dead.”
Special correspondent Sabra Ayres contributed from Moscow.