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Michael Cohen plea deal brings new scrutiny to Trump-Putin meeting at G-20

  • November 29, 2018

BUENOS AIRES – President Donald Trump said Thursday he will “probably” meet with Russian President Vladimir Putin in Argentina this week, an encounter that is already drawing heavy scrutiny amid the widening probe of Moscow’s involvement in the 2016 election.

“I think it’s a very good time to have the meeting,” Trump said before leaving the White House for the two-day G-20 summit in Buenos Aires.

After floating the idea he might cancel his first substantive face-to-face with Putin since a widely panned joint appearance in July, Trump confirmed he would follow through on the meeting even as a bombshell guilty plea from his former personal attorney, Michael Cohen, threatened to overshadow any geopolitical issues on the leaders’ agenda.

Cohen pleaded guilty Thursday to a single count of lying to Congress about a Trump Tower development project in Moscow, according to the U.S. Attorney’s Office in Manhattan. Trump has repeatedly denied having any business interests in Russia.

Trump described Cohen Thursday as “a weak person and not a very smart person.”

The long-awaited meeting between Trump and Putin was already the subject of intense scrutiny on Capitol Hill, including from fellow Republicans still reeling from Trump’s much-criticized performance with Putin in Helsinki this summer. That tension has increased amid the diplomatic crisis unfolding after Russia fired on and then seized three Ukrainian ships over the weekend.

“It’s just about standing up for what we believe in because I think when you don’t stand up to Russia, or other countries that would take that kind of aggressive activity, they take from it that it’s somehow acceptable,” Ohio Sen. Rob Portman, a Republican on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, told USA TODAY.

But Cohen’s plea deal Thursday with Justice Department special counsel Robert Mueller, who is investigating Russian meddling in the 2016 election, added a further twist to an already high-stakes summit in Buenos Aires. Trump was set to arrive in Argentina for the gathering late Thursday. 

Trump had cast doubt on the Putin meeting earlier in the week, suggesting he might cancel it over what he described as Moscow’s “aggression” in the skirmish between Russia and Ukraine in the Sea of Azov. But Kremlin officials insisted throughout the week that they were proceeding under the assumption the meeting was still on. 

Putin spokesman Dmitry Peskov told reporters that the two leaders will have a “brief” conversation followed by an hourlong extended meeting on Saturday.  

Even before the uncertainty over the meeting, Republican lawmakers were pressing Trump to take a tougher posture with Putin, framing the meeting as an opportunity for a do-over of the heavily criticized appearance at NATO back in July.

At the time Trump said he believed both sides were to blame for tense U.S.-Russian relations and he described Putin’s denial that Moscow tried to influence the election as “extremely strong and powerful.” He later walked back part of those remarks, saying he didn’t see any reason why it “wouldn’t” be Russia that interfered in the election.

“Hopefully, there was something learned from the last experience they had together. And I’ve got to believe that plenty of staff have talked to him about that,” Sen. Bob Corker, R-Tenn., chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, told USA TODAY. “He can easily overcome that just by projecting something very different.”

But experts questioned whether the president is prepared to shift tactics on Russia. Trump initially declined to criticize Russia directly for the military confrontation. National Security Adviser John Bolton, a Russia hawk, told reporters the issue would come up during the meeting but declined to elaborate.  

“My expectations are pretty minimal,” said Steven Pifer, a research fellow at Stanford University and a former U.S. ambassador to Ukraine who spent more than two decades at the State Department. “If the Russians sense that the West Wing response is going to be tepid, they may believe that they can escalate the situation.”

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