Trump Suddenly Takes a Stand Against Russia

In response to its recent moves against Ukraine, he canceled his meeting with Vladimir Putin. But the decision probably has more to do with his own troubles at home.

Trump and Putin meet at a summit in Helsinki in July.
Trump and Putin meet at a summit in Helsinki in July. (Lehtikuva Lehtikuva / Reuters)

This morning it was “probably” on. Now it appears it’s off: President Trump said Thursday he was canceling his bilateral meeting with Russian President Vladimir Putin over the seizure by Russia of three Ukrainian naval vessels off the coast of Crimea.

“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 in Argentina with President Vladimir Putin,” Trump said on Twitter. “I look forward to a meaningful Summit again as soon as this situation is resolved!”

The president’s remarks are a striking reversal from his position earlier this week when he appeared to blame both Ukraine and Russia for the clash, saying: “We do not like what’s happening either way.” But the comments are also a walk back from those he made earlier on Thursday when he said he “probably will be meeting with President Putin,” because “I think it’s a very good time to have a meeting.” Trump also added: “I’m getting a full report on the plane as to what happened” between Russia and Ukraine in the Sea of Azov. Whatever Trump’s advisers told him, he decided to cancel the meeting.

On past occasions, this sort of advice has mattered little. Trump met with Putin in Helsinki, Finland, in July, just days after the U.S. Justice Department indicted 12 Russian intelligence officers for their alleged hacking of the emails and computers of senior Democratic Party officials in an attempt to interfere with the 2016 presidential election. Trump said at the time: “Getting along with Russia is a good thing, not a bad thing.” At a news conference following the meeting, Trump rejected the overwhelming consensus among U.S. intelligence agencies that Russia interfered in the 2016 election, saying the Russian leader had “said it is not Russia.”

Those remarks echo Trump’s long-standing reluctance to blame Russia for its actions. Earlier this year, before he headed to the contentious G7 summit in Canada, Trump called for Russia to be readmitted to that club, from which it was expelled in 2014 following its annexation of Ukraine’s Crimea. When asked if he would recognize Russia’s occupation of Crimea, Trump replied: “We’re going to have to see.” He reportedly told the other members of the G7 that Crimea was Russian because its population spoke Russian—a view he expressed as far back as 2016. Trump then appeared to blame President Barack Obama for Russia’s actions, saying, “He was the one that let Crimea get away,” and adding that Russia has “spent a lot of money on rebuilding it.”

It’s probably little coincidence that the president’s reversal Thursday came shortly after Michael Cohen, his former lawyer, pleaded guilty to lying to Congress, telling a federal court he traveled to Russia to discuss the construction of a Trump Tower in Moscow during the 2016 presidential campaign. Cohen’s plea is part of a deal with Robert Mueller, the special counsel who is investigating Russian interference in the election and possible collusion between Trump’s presidential campaign and the Russian government. Trump has insisted that there was no collusion with Russia over his election, and has labeled Mueller’s investigation a “witch hunt.”

Had Trump met with Putin at the G20, questions about Cohen, Cohen’s meetings with Russian officials, and Moscow’s interference in the presidential election would have almost certainly dogged the American president. But canceling the meeting is no guarantee that questions about Cohen’s claims and what Trump knew about his lawyer’s actions won’t continue to dog the president.