Citing the US investigation into Russian interference in the US 2016 election, the White House said on Wednesday that it is pushing the second summit between Donald Trump and Vladimir Putin back until next year, after having initially planned it for this autumn.
The delay, announced by National Security Adviser John Bolton, came as the fallout from the Helsinki summit continued to hurt the administration. US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo faced a barrage of questions from legislators in Congress, some of whom are preparing new bipartisan bill that would put new sanctions on Russia.
Mr Bolton, one week after setting the stage to invite the Russian president to the White House in the fall, announced a change in plans.
“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,” Mr Bolton said in a statement. The term “witch-hunt” is used by Mr Trump to discredit the Robert Mueller investigation.
But that investigation aside, experts suspected other reasons for rescheduling the meeting. “It’s because Vladimir Putin didn’t want to do it,” said Michael Weiss, a US policy analyst who follows closely Russian politics. He pointed to the lukewarm response from Moscow to the meeting on Monday.
Yuri Ushakov, an aide to the Kremlin showed preference to “other options” to holding the meeting, other than the White House. Mr Putin last visited the White House in 2005, and throughout the Barack Obama years, they met on the margins of international meetings.
“There are other options [to meet] which our leaders can look at,” Mr Ushakov said, such as the upcoming G20 leaders summit in Argentina at the end of November. “Maybe there will be other international events which Trump and Putin will take part in.”
Mr Weiss told The National that Russia's reluctance in accepting the invitation is a sign "of being embarrassed by Mr Trump". "They fear he ignited a desire for retaliation from Congress and the bureaucracies to pass more sanctions" all potentially making for an awkward Washington visit before the mid-term Congressional elections this November.
Two prominent senators, Republican Senator Lindsey Graham and Democrat Bob Menendez, revealed on Tuesday that they will introduce a bill to put more sanctions on Russia, targeting its sovereign debt, energy and financial sectors.
In his hearing at the Senate Foreign Relations Committee on Tuesday, Mr Pompeo was asked if he would work with Congress on the new sanctions bill targeting Russia. “Yes, sir” he told Senator Menendez.
Throughout the hearing, Mr Pompeo was on the defensive as both Republican and Democrat senators pummeled him with questions about nature of agreements Mr Trump made to Mr Putin in their private meeting, and the credibility of the administration in countering Russia.
Mr Pompeo defended the administration's record having designated more than 230 Russian individuals and entities, and expelled 60 Russian spies. He did not answer questions related to whether the US president promised any loosening of sanctions in his private meeting with Mr Putin, but stressed that there is no change on sanctions under the Magnitsky Act or those related to the annexation of Crimea.
The US chief diplomat named three areas where Mr Trump and Mr Putin reached an understanding. These are:
- Advancing business-to-business leadership exchange
- Re-establishing a counterterrorism council
- Exploring possibilities in Syria to prompt the return of the displaced and push for a political solution
Mr Pompeo tried to reassure lawmakers that he has personally told senior Russian officials there will be "severe consequence" for any meddling in US elections, and that Mr Trump “has a complete and proper understanding of what happened”.