“Based on the fact that the ships and sailors have not been returned to Ukraine from Russia, I have decided to cancel my previously scheduled meeting ... in Argentina with President Vladimir Putin,” Trump tweeted. “I look forward to a meaningful Summit again as soon as this situation is resolved.”
Trump is referring to the ongoing standoff in the Kerch Strait, a vital sea passage near Crimea, where Russian ships fired on three Ukrainian vessels. Russian crews later boarded and seized those Ukrainian ships, which Ukraine and many Western leaders have condemned as a blatant act of Russian aggression.
Trump himself has given mixed signals over the incident. On Monday, he told reporters “we don’t like what’s happening either way,” but on Tuesday, in an interview with the Washington Post, he suggested that he might cancel the Putin meeting over the crisis.
Trump appears to have decided to follow through on that threat — a decision that marks one of the strongest signals yet he’s willing to hold Russia to account for its belligerence in the region.
But the decision to cancel the Putin meeting came just a few hours after Trump’s former personal attorney, Michael Cohen, pleaded guilty in special counsel Robert Mueller’s Russia investigation, admitting that he’d lied to Congress about a project to build a Trump Tower in Moscow.
That has led some to speculate that Trump’s abrupt decision to cancel the Putin meeting has a lot less to do with Ukraine — and a lot more to do with the bad optics of meeting with the Russian president just two days after a major development in the investigation into possible collusion between the Trump campaign and Russia during the 2016 election.
Hours after his former lawyer Michael Cohen pleads guilty to lying to Congress about Trump-Russia, POTUS decides to take a stand vs Putin over Ukraine... https://t.co/1ZiIjBJTXF— Mark MacKinnon (@markmackinnon) November 29, 2018
There’s been a lot of drama over this Putin-Trump meeting
There here’s been a lot of will-they/won’t-they about this Trump-Putin meeting over the past few days.
National Security Adviser John Bolton said Tuesday at a press briefing that Trump would meet with Putin while in Argentina. Then, in an interview on Tuesday with the Washington Post, Trump said “maybe he won’t have the meeting” after Trump said he was thinking about calling it off because of Ukraine.
But on Thursday morning, the Kremlin confirmed that Trump and Putin would indeed meet at the G20 on Saturday at noon. “We are expecting the two presidents to speak briefly at first, but everything is left to the discretion of the heads of state,” Kremlin spokesperson Dmitry Peskov said, adding that Washington had confirmed.
Trump also indicated the meeting with Putin was still on, just before boarding his flight to Argentina.
“We haven’t terminated that meeting, I was thinking about it,” Trump told reporters, of his sit-down with Putin. “They would like to have it, I think it’s a very good time to have a meeting.”
REPORTER: Are you going to meet with Putin?— Aaron Rupar (@atrupar) November 29, 2018
TRUMP: "I probably will be meeting with President Putin. We haven't terminated that meeting. I was thinking about it, but we haven't. They'd like to have it. I think it's a very good time to have the meeting." pic.twitter.com/qhE8A5TkWm
Trump added that he would read a “report” on the plane, seemingly a reference to a status update about Ukraine.
Then, less than an hour later, Trump announced the meeting with Putin was off.
....in Argentina with President Vladimir Putin. I look forward to a meaningful Summit again as soon as this situation is resolved!— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) November 29, 2018
Trump also seems to have told his Twitter followers before he informed the Kremlin the sit-down was canceled. “We’ve only seen the tweet and reports. We don’t have any official information,” Dmitry Peskov, the Kremlin spokesperson, said. “If that’s the case, the president will have a couple extra hours in his schedule for useful meetings.”
Trump’s decision to skip this meeting is somewhat surprising, given that evidence of Putin’s antics — including the indictment of 12 Russian military intelligence officers for hacking the Democrats during the 2016 election days before the Helsinki summit — hasn’t deterred Trump from sitting down with the Russian leader in the past.
But, then again, Trump’s meeting with Putin might have generated bad optics for reasons beyond geopolitics. On Thursday, Michael Cohen, Trump’s former attorney, pleaded guilty to lying to Congress about his discussions over a Trump Tower project in 2016. These charges were brought by special counsel Robert Mueller, who’s investigating whether any members of the Trump campaign colluded with Russia in the 2016 election.
The president’s stated reason for skipping a Putin meeting — the crisis in Ukraine — is a legitimate one. It also comes as the US and Russia relationship has also been under greater strain following the administration’s decision to pull out of a decades-old arms treaty with Russia.
But Trump has frequently avoided directly condemning Russia or Putin, which is why this decision is notable, as my colleague Alex Ward pointed out earlier this week. It would show that “he — and not just his administration — wants to hold Russia accountable for its actions.”