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Trump Says He Canceled Meeting With Russian President Putin Over Ukraine


All eyes were on President Trump's first day at the G-20 summit in Argentina. He's working his way through a series of meetings there. Trump's visit comes on the heels of a big development in Special Counsel Robert Mueller's investigation - a guilty plea by his former attorney Michael Cohen and what it revealed about Trump's efforts to land a business deal with Russia during the 2016 campaign. NPR White House correspondent Tamara Keith is traveling with the president and joins us now from Buenos Aires. Hey there, Tam.


CORNISH: Sometimes when a president goes overseas, the White House is trying to leave all the domestic troubles behind. Is that the case this time?

KEITH: The answer would seem to be no. And the reason I say that is that President Trump was supposed to have a meeting here with Russian President Vladimir Putin. He abruptly canceled that on the way to Argentina, via tweet, saying it was because of Russian aggression against Ukraine. But then this afternoon there were reports of possibly an informal meeting happening between Trump and Putin. Those reports were being pushed from Russia.

And the White House put out sort of an odd statement referring to the Mueller investigation. Sarah Sanders sent this along. She said the Russian witch hunt hoax, which is hopefully now nearing an end, is doing very well. Unfortunately it probably does undermine our relationship with Russia - which was not entirely the answer to the question that we were asking.

Another way that we know that the president's thinking about it is that he's been tweeting about it from here in Argentina. A little while ago, reporters got to ask the president questions. And one of the questions was about why he canceled his meeting with Putin. He insisted it was because of Ukraine.


PRESIDENT DONALD TRUMP: Hopefully they'll be able to settle it out soon because we look forward to meeting with President Putin. But on the basis of what took place with respect to the ships and sailors, that was the sole reason.

CORNISH: In the meantime, what else has been going on at the G-20?

KEITH: Well, one big thing that happened today was before the G-20 started - a signing ceremony at the president's hotel with the leaders of Canada and Mexico, signing the USMCA. That is the trade deal that will replace NAFTA. One interesting note is that during remarks President Trump and President Pena Nieto of Mexico - it was his last day on the job - both referred to it as the USMCA, which is the preferred title that President Trump likes. But Prime Minister Trudeau kept calling it new NAFTA even though President Trump does not like the term NAFTA at all. But, you know, this is a notable moment because this is a step in the process of President Trump keeping a campaign promise. That said, Congress and legislatures in Mexico and Canada still need to sign off on this.

CORNISH: On another subject, the Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman is there. He's of course been under scrutiny since the killing of journalist Jamal Khashoggi. Has he actually interacted with President Trump yet?

KEITH: So a White House official says that they just exchanged pleasantries, that there was no discussion. This comes in pretty big contrast with a video that's been circulating of Russian President Putin and MBS exchanging sort of an intricate high-five that looked very celebratory. The president is under some scrutiny about this because he has questioned the CIA's assessment that MBS ordered the killing of Jamal Khashoggi.

CORNISH: That's NPR's Tamara Keith. Tamara, thank you.

KEITH: You're welcome. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Tamara Keith has been a White House correspondent for NPR since 2014 and co-hosts the NPR Politics Podcast, the top political news podcast in America. Keith has chronicled the Trump administration from day one, putting this unorthodox presidency in context for NPR listeners, from early morning tweets to executive orders and investigations. She covered the final two years of the Obama presidency, and during the 2016 presidential campaign she was assigned to cover Hillary Clinton. In 2018, Keith was elected to serve on the board of the White House Correspondents' Association.