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Trump cancels Putin meeting over Russia-Ukraine sea dispute

Updated November 29, 2018 - 6:35 pm

WASHINGTON — President Donald Trump engaged in some midair diplomacy on Thursday en route to Argentina for a two-day Group of 20 summit, canceling a planned one-on-one meeting with Russia’s Vladimir Putin via Twitter.

From Air Force One, Trump cited Russia’s recent seizure of three small Ukrainian ships and detention of 23 sailors as the reason for the cancellation.

“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” with Putin, he tweeted.

The decision to cancel the meeting came shortly after news broke that Trump’s former private attorney Michael Cohen had pleaded guilty to lying to Congress about negotiations for a possible Trump Tower deal in Moscow during the 2016 presidential campaign.

The cancellation also presented a notable departure from Trump’s chummy tone with Putin at a July press conference in Helsinki. At that time, the U.S. president leaned toward supporting Putin’s denial that Moscow interfered with the U.S. 2016 elections, as the U.S. intelligence officials believe.

Even without the Putin meeting, the two-day summit with world leaders that begins Friday could be among the most consequential global trips of Trump’s presidency. As Air Force One took off for Buenos Aires Thursday, the international community’s gaze is darting from one potential crisis to the next.

Washington and Beijing have been embroiled in a fierce trade war that could heat up. Ukraine has put itself on a war footing against Moscow. And Turkey has been pushing Saudi Arabia to come clean with the particulars of the Oct. 2 murder of Washington Post columnist Jamal Khashoggi at the Saudi consulate in Istanbul.

Trump is expected to go ahead with meetings with Chinese President Xi Jinping and Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan.

But National Security Adviser John Bolton told reporters Tuesday that Trump’s schedule is too full to accommodate any time with Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, who U.S. intelligence officials say must have at least known about the plot to kill Khashoggi.

After briefing U.S. senators on the murder Wednesday on Capitol Hill, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo bolstered Trump’s contention that the CIA did not find a smoking gun that implicated Mohammed, saying that there is “no direct reporting connecting the crown prince to the murder.”

Talks with China

Before Trump returns to Washington, he will dine with Xi on Saturday night. It will be their first face-to-face meeting in 2018.

Leading up to the summit, Trump gave several interviews in which he said that China was anxious to cut a deal ahead of a spike in tariffs on Chinese imports. The Trump administration imposed a 10-percent levy on $200 billion of Chinese imported goods in September. Those tariffs are scheduled to rise to 25 percent on Jan. 1, 2019 – leverage Trump hopes will prod concessions from China.

“I think China wants to make a deal very badly,” Trump told the Washington Post. “I think we’ll either make a deal or we’ll be taking in billions and billions of dollars a month in tariffs, and I’m OK with either one of those situations.”

White House Chief Economic Advisor Larry Kudlow said that a deal with China will require Beijing to offer concessions on intellectual property, forced technology transfers, trade barriers and barriers to U.S. ownership of Chinese concerns.

If there is to be a trade war, Kudlow added that the U.S. economy is “in very good shape right now” and “I think we are in a far better shape to weather this than the Chinese are.”

On the other side of the aisle, Democrats are pushing Trump to drive a hard bargain.

Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer and Democratic Sens. Ron Wyden of Oregon and Sherrod Brown of Ohio released a letter in which they urged Trump to “stand firm against China if meaningful concessions are not made. American jobs, American innovation, and long-term American economic prosperity are at stake.”

But Chinese Ambassador to the U.S. Cui Tiankai told Reuters, “We can not accept that one side would put forward a number of demands, and the other side just has to satisfy all these things.”

Trump’s other meetings

According to press secretary Sarah Sanders, Trump also will hold bilateral meetings with President Mauricio Macri of host country Argentina, German Chancellor Angela Merkel and Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe. Trump also will conduct a joint meeting with Abe and Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi.

A 2016 campaign pledge to end the North American Free Trade Agreement also may be furthered in Buenos Aires. The government of Mexican President-elect Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador, who will be sworn in Saturday, has indicated that Mexico will sign the U.S.-Mexico-Canada Agreement, or USMCA, which would be Trump’s makeover of NAFTA.

Even if the three nations’ leaders sign the pact, their respective legislatures have to ratify the new agreement.

At a trade seminar at the conservative Hudson Institute on Wednesday, Sen. Rob Portman, R-Ohio, praised the USMCA as important work, even as he voiced skepticism that Mexico would sign the pact in Buenos Aires.

Contact Debra J. Saunders at dsaunders@reviewjournal.com or 202-662-7391. Follow @DebraJSaunders on Twitter.

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