Trump delays proposed Putin meeting until 2019
National security adviser cites Mueller investigation as reason for delay
The Trump administration sought to fend off accusations the president is too soft on Russia on Wednesday, putting off a proposed second summit with Russian leader Vladimir Putin and declaring the U.S. will never recognize Russia's 2014 annexation of Crimea.
As members of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee peppered Secretary of State Mike Pompeo with questions about last week's summit in Finland, the White House said President Donald Trump had opted against trying to meet with Putin this fall. Putin already had sent signals that the White House meeting wasn't going to happen.
National security adviser John Bolton cited special counsel Robert Mueller's investigation into Russian interference in the 2016 election as the reason for the delay.
"The President believes that the next bilateral meeting with President Putin should take place after the Russia witch hunt is over, so we've agreed that it will be after the first of the year," Bolton said in a statement, using Trump's favoured but highly controversial term for the Mueller probe.
While the statement signaled optimism that the Mueller probe would be completed by the end of this year, no timetable has been set and it could very well stretch into 2019.
The White House said last week that Trump had directed Bolton to invite Putin to Washington for a meeting in the fall. This came amid the backlash over Trump's performance at a news conference with Putin following their Helsinki summit, and many members of Congress had objected to them meeting again in the fall.
Many members of Congress had objected to the two leaders meeting again in the fall and said Putin would not be welcome on Capitol Hill.
"That's a wise approach," said Sen. John Kennedy, a Republican from Louisiana, after learning of the delay. "I thought it was premature."
Pompeo defends Trump's record on Russia
The decision also came days after the White House rejected a Putin-backed effort to hold a referendum in eastern Ukraine on the region's future. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said Wednesday, prior to the announcement, that the U.S. would never recognize Russia's annexation of Crimea and demanded that Ukraine's territorial integrity be restored.
During his appearance before the Foreign Relations Committee, Pompeo also pushed back on allegations the Trump administration has been weak or subservient to Russia over Ukraine or its meddling in the election. He noted that the administration had just days ago provided the Ukraine government with an additional $200 million US in military equipment and maintained that the administration was serious about combatting Russian interference in the U.S. and Western democracies.
Pompeo said he had personally told top Russian officials that there will be "severe consequences" for any interference in U.S. elections or the American democratic process. He said that Trump, despite his denigration of the Mueller probe, accepts that there was Russian interference in the 2016 election and fully understands the threat posed by Moscow.
"He has a complete and proper understanding of what happened," Pompeo said of Trump.
Before Trump's announcement on Wednesday, signs had already emerged that raised doubts about a second Trump-Putin summit. On Tuesday, Putin's foreign affairs adviser, Yuri Ushakov, told journalists in Moscow that no preparations were underway for a meeting in Washington.
Ushakov there were "other options that our leaders could consider," such as the late November meeting of the Group of 20 in Argentina or another international event that both leaders would attend.
Trump has long been seeking to bring Putin to Washington for a meeting. The president met with Putin on the sidelines of two international summits last year — first Germany, then Vietnam — and both times he invited his Russian counterpart to the White House, according to three current and former administration officials. He reiterated the invitation on a call with Putin in the spring.