The White House on Wednesday pushed to next year President Trump’s planned meeting with Russian President Vladimir Putin, a move that comes amid intensifying criticism of Trump’s conflicting statements on Russian interference in U.S. elections.
“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,” national security adviser John Bolton said in a statement, referring to special counsel Robert S. Mueller III’s probe into Russian interference in the 2016 presidential campaign.
Trump has sharply criticized the investigation and has maintained that there was no coordination between Russia and his campaign.
Last week, the White House announced that Trump had asked Bolton to invite Putin to Washington in the fall for a follow-up meeting to their summit in Helsinki this month.
Trump has faced bipartisan pushback in Washington over what critics decry as his overly accommodating approach to Putin, who the U.S. intelligence community determined personally ordered interference in the 2016 campaign aimed at helping the then-GOP nominee.
But Russia also did not immediately jump at the opportunity to schedule a second summit between the two leaders.
In Moscow, Kremlin foreign policy adviser Yuri Ushakov said Tuesday that the Kremlin had received an invitation for a second summit from Bolton several days after the Helsinki meeting but that no preparations were in motion.
Considering the prevailing “atmosphere” in Washington, Ushakov told Russia’s Interfax news agency, “it seems to me that for now, it would be right to wait for the dust to settle before having a businesslike discussion of all issues, but not now.”
Ushakov said that there were “other options” to consider for a bilateral meeting, including at the Group of 20 meeting, which both leaders are expected to attend, in Buenos Aires at the end of November.
Congressional Republicans, who have roundly rebuked Trump’s performance alongside Putin in Helsinki, have warned the president against repeating it with the Russian leader here in Washington.
The top Republicans in Congress, House Speaker Paul D. Ryan (R-Wis.) and Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.), both said this week that Putin would not be welcome for meetings on Capitol Hill, which customarily occur when a foreign head of state visits Washington.
“I’m one who thinks that it’s a good thing for leaders of countries to talk,” Senate Majority Whip John Cornyn (R-Tex.) told reporters this week when asked about a second Trump-Putin summit. “But I would consider putting that one on the back burner for a while.”
The meeting’s postponement comes amid several signs that the White House is seeking to assuage some of the fears over U.S. Russia policy stoked by Trump’s joint appearance with Putin.
The White House also issued a declaration on Wednesday ruling out the possibility of the United States recognizing Russia’s 2014 annexation of Crimea. The statement follows reports that Putin raised the issue of a referendum on Ukraine in his meeting with Trump last week.
“The United States rejects Russia’s attempted annexation of Crimea and pledges to maintain this policy until Ukraine’s territorial integrity is restored,” Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said in a statement.
Pompeo also testified Wednesday afternoon before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, where he sought to reassure lawmakers that Trump accepts the intelligence community’s conclusion on Russian election interference in 2016.
“He has a complete and proper understanding of what happened. I know. I briefed him on it for over a year,” said Pompeo, who served as CIA director before Trump tapped him for the secretary of state job this spring.
Yet the skepticism among many in Congress was on full display at the hearing, with Pompeo facing tough questions from lawmakers demanding to know what Trump and Putin discussed in their two-hour Helsinki summit and, more broadly, whether the administration has an overarching foreign policy plan at all.
“You come before a group of senators today who are filled with serious doubts about this White House and its conduct of American foreign policy,” Sen. Bob Corker (R-Tenn.) said. The retiring lawmaker and Senate Foreign Relations Committee chairman has become one of Trump’s sharpest critics.
He blasted a lack of information from the Trump administration and said many lawmakers have left their meetings at the White House without a clear sense that there is a coherent strategy in place.
“The administration tells us, ‘Don’t worry, be patient, there’s a strategy here,’ ” Corker said. “But from where we sit, it appears that in a ‘ready, fire, aim’ fashion, the White House is waking up every morning and making it up as they go.”