Did the White House give Vladimir Putin a heads-up on this first, or did he find out on Twitter like the rest of us?
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….
— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) November 29, 2018
….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
As of this morning, Moscow still thought the meeting was on. In fact, they announced earlier that they had confirmed the meeting with the White House:
The Kremlin said Thursday that Washington has confirmed a one-on-one meeting between President Trump and his Russian counterpart Vladimir Putin at noon on Dec. 1 at the Group of 20 summit in Argentina.
Trump had previously cast the Buenos Aires sit-down into doubt, telling The Washington Post he might cancel seeing Putin after Russia seized Ukrainian vessels and crew members over the weekend, sparking global condemnation and a sharp escalation in tensions between the neighbors.
“We are expecting the two presidents to speak briefly at first, but everything is left to the discretion of the heads of state,” Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov told reporters.
“Washington has confirmed,” he added.
Nothing’s confirmed until Trump tweets about it, Mr. Peskov. If indeed they confirmed this with the White House, then it seems as though something changed their mind this morning. It didn’t long for reporters to speculate on what that might be:
Trump’s reaction to Russian aggression over Ukrainian ships has been tepid since the news broke over the weekend. But just a couple hours after Cohen news breaks about his knowledge of the Trump Tower Moscow project, Trump scraps Putin meeting https://t.co/C1xbRZ1hkr
— Manu Raju (@mkraju) November 29, 2018
Actually, it wasn’t all that tepid. Trump raised the possibility of canceling the meeting on Tuesday in an interview with the Washington Post. Trump called Russia’s seizure of Ukrainian ships and sailors an “aggression” that needed to end:
President Trump threatened Tuesday to cancel his scheduled meeting with Russian President Vladimir Putin at a global summit later this week because of Russia’s maritime clash with Ukraine, saying, “I don’t like that aggression.”
Russia captured three Ukrainian naval ships and their crews in the Black Sea on Sunday, an act that drew condemnation from the West and led to Ukraine preparing to impose martial law in 10 of the country’s 27 regions.
Asked during an interview Monday with The Washington Post whether he thinks Putin was within his rights to seize the Ukrainian ships, Trump said he was considering canceling his bilateral meeting with Putin scheduled for later this week.
“I am getting a report on that tonight and that will determine what happens at the meeting,” Trump said. “I’m getting a full report on that tonight. That will be very determinative. Maybe I won’t have the meeting. Maybe I won’t even have the meeting. We’re going to see, depending on what comes out tonight.”
The Kremlin responded yesterday with alarm to Trump’s reaction, insisting that the US needed the meeting as much as Russia did. With global reaction running entirely against Moscow, that’s not the case, which their public bid to salvage the meeting made clear enough.
To be fair, though, Trump said before getting on Marine One that he was still inclined to have the meeting — even after the news of Cohen’s plea deal with Manafort emerged:
Earlier Thursday, Trump told reporters that he would still “probably” meet with Putin, despite a recent incident in which Russian ships opened fire on and seized three Ukrainian vessels near Crimea.
“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 a meeting. I’m getting a full report on the plane as to what happened with respect to that,” he said ahead of his departure on Marine One.
Trump added that he will be getting a “full report on the plane” on recent Russian aggression in Ukraine “and that will determine” his course of action.
That must have been some report, eh? It’s the wisest decision for Trump to take regardless of today’s Mueller developments. Putin outplayed him in Helsinki, causing Trump to have to repeatedly step back from his comments during that summit on his return home. The stakes are higher this time around for Ukraine and Europe, neither of which can afford another gladhanding effort by Trump with Putin. Putin has to feel some consequences for his “aggression,” as Trump himself called it, and allow room for other Western nations to muster a diplomatic and economic rebuke. The summit would only have gotten in the way of that effort, especially if it resulted in Putin convincing Trump that he was acting reasonably in closing the Kerch Strait — which is undoubtedly what Putin hoped to do.
But don’t scratch the event off the schedule yet. Putin will likely try to get Trump into a room anyway in Buenos Aires over the weekend. Will Trump reject such an offer and/or rebuke Putin to his face? His White House advisers had better stay on full alert over the weekend. The last thing Trump needs now is another soccer-ball photo op with Putin.
Update: Note who advised Trump on the decision:
JUST IN: White House says President Trump decided to cancel his meeting with President Putin at the G20 after conferring with Sec. Pompeo, NSA Bolton and Chief of Staff Kelly aboard Air Force One en route to Argentina. https://t.co/Ief1XUIc4F
— NBC News (@NBCNews) November 29, 2018
At least on the surface, this makes it look much more oriented to strategic foreign-policy concerns rather than domestic legal issues.