The cancellation comes during an unusually chaotic period of Trump’s presidency, including an FBI raid Monday on the Manhattan office, home and hotel room of Michael Cohen, the president’s longtime personal lawyer and fixer. Trump characterized the raid as a “witch hunt” during an appearance before reporters Monday and again Tuesday morning on Twitter.
“The president will remain in the United States to oversee the American response to Syria and to monitor developments around the world,” Sanders said Tuesday.
The three-day trip, set to begin Friday, would have been Trump’s first visit to Latin America since taking office. After traveling to Peru for the gathering of Western hemisphere heads of state, Trump planned to go to Colombia to meet with President Juan Manuel Santos.
Trump vowed Monday that the United States would take swift action in retaliation for the suspected chemical weapons attack on civilians in Syria, which has been blamed for the deaths of at least 49 people in the opposition-held town of Douma, outside the Syrian capital Damascus.
“It was an atrocious attack. It was horrible,” Trump said at the start of a Cabinet meeting that was one of several White House gatherings Monday where possible military action was discussed.
Options include the sort of largely symbolic airstrike Trump ordered a year ago in response to a similar chemical attack blamed on Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, or a wider and riskier assault. Trump oversaw that response from his Mar-a-Lago estate in Palm Beach, Fla.
In addition to managing the potential U.S. response to last weekend’s attack in Syria, Trump has been monitoring what he fears may be a migrant crisis at the U.S. border with Mexico.
The wide-ranging Russian investigation being led by special counsel Robert S. Mueller III has also intensified in recent weeks, as have converging legal battles pertaining to Trump and his associates.
The legal controversies have monopolized much of the president’s attention in recent days. Trump found himself consumed by the Cohen raids Monday, fuming in private as well as going on a tirade about the “witch hunt” in front of reporters.
Meanwhile, Trump has been undergoing a shake-up of his Cabinet and senior staff. And Environmental Protection Agency Administrator Scott Pruitt has been under increasing scrutiny for a growing number of possible ethical lapses.
The cancellation of Trump’s trip took some aides by surprise.
Shortly before the announcement, Larry Kudlow, the president’s new director of the National Economic Council, said Trump was able to “compartmentalize” and that he wouldn’t be distracted by the drama surrounding Cohen.
“I’m going to bet you he holds his regular schedule today,” Kudlow said. “I’ll be traveling with him with a group going to Latin America. . . . I don’t think it’s going to stop him.”
Trump had been slated to give a policy speech in Peru that a senior administration official told reporters last week would advance Trump’s priorities for U.S. national security and “peace through strength.”
Latin America analysts said they had expected to hear a national security-focused exploration of Trump’s focus on border security and reducing illegal and legal immigration to the United States.
Trump was also expected to use the speech to criticize Venezuelan President Nicolás Maduro, a leftist leader considered a dictator by his critics. The Trump administration accuses him of looting his country and starving his people.
Pence has been among the most vocal Maduro critics, and he is now expected to criticize Maduro at the summit. Maduro was disinvited from the gathering in February, an unusual diplomatic break among Latin American nations that U.S. analysts consider a positive sign.
“A win for this president at the summit will be a strong speech focused on regional governance, leadership on Venezuela and, of course, free and reciprocal trade, in addition to a positive regional receipt by Western Hemisphere presidents of his vision,” a senior administration official told reporters last week.
The region has gotten little mention from Trump’s White House except as a source of migrants, drugs and gang violence that the president blames Mexico and other neighbors for failing to stem. Souring relations with Mexico and the ongoing trade negotiations over the North American Free Trade Agreement were expected to hang over the meeting.
Trump had been expected to meet with Mexican President Enrique Peña Nieto, among other leaders, although the White House had announced no specific meetings.
White House officials said last week that Trump was not expected to meet with Cuban leader Raúl Castro, who is attending his last such gathering before a scheduled retirement later this month. Saturday’s large gathering of leaders in Lima would have been the only opportunity for a chance meeting between Castro and Trump before the Castro era ends in Cuba.
Trump has reversed some of President Barack Obama’s diplomatic and economic outreach to Cuba, including pulling many U.S. diplomats out of the country following unexplained health attacks on Americans last year.
In a statement Tuesday, a Pence spokesman said the vice president was “honored” to stand in for Trump at the upcoming summit.
“He looks forward to promoting policy that will lead to an even stronger U.S. economy and working with our close allies in Latin America to collectively hold undemocratic actors in the region accountable for their actions,” said Jarrod Agen, Pence’s deputy chief of staff and communications director.