DA NANG, Vietnam — President Donald Trump will not hold a formal meeting with his Russian counterpart Vladimir Putin while the two leaders are in Vietnam for a summit of Asian-Pacific countries, White House press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders said Friday.
The last-minute announcement follows internal disagreements within the Trump administration about the substantive value of a meeting and concerns about the optics as Trump's former associates come under intensifying scrutiny by the FBI for their past contacts with Russian officials.
Sanders cited "scheduling conflicts on both sides" that prevented the meeting, but diplomatic sources told BuzzFeed News that Washington wanted Moscow to agree to certain conditions on the substance of a meeting before the two leaders met. "There are conditions that the Russian side needs to agree to before a meeting just as there were before Trump and Putin's G-20 meeting," one diplomat said.
Secretary of State Rex Tillerson also suggested that the parameters of the meeting needed to be better defined before the two leaders convened. "We’d like to know if the two heads of state are going to meet there’s something useful to point to," Tillerson said in Beijing.
Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov, however, left open the prospect of a meeting, telling Bloomberg News that consultations are still ongoing. “There is no final understanding yet,” he said.
Sanders said "there was never a meeting confirmed and there will not be one that takes place," but said it's likely the two men would "bump into each other."
During internal deliberations in advance of the meeting, Tillerson took the position that a meeting was worth the cost of the awkward political optics given the importance of Russian cooperation on Syria, Ukraine, and North Korea. He was supported in that view by the State Department's Bureau of Near East Affairs, especially Brett McGurk, the special envoy leading the anti-ISIS effort. These officials are seeking Russia's support to expand safe zones beyond southwest Syria and kickstart talks on a political transition.
Some Russia experts in the Trump administration disagreed, arguing that there is little to gain from the meeting, particularly on the issue of Syria, where the US and Russia are backing opposing sides.
A lengthy meeting on the sidelines of the APEC summit in Da Nang threatened to carry political costs given the intense scrutiny and investigations into the Trump administration's Russia connections. It was announced last week that the Trump campaign's foreign policy adviser George Papadopoulos plead guilty to lying to the FBI about his efforts to put together a meeting between campaign officials and members of the Russian government. The president's former campaign manager Paul Manafort is also fending off criminal allegations related to his lobbying on behalf of a pro-Russian political party in Ukraine.
Despite the whiff of scandal in the air, State Department officials expected the meeting to happen, and even now some are speculating that Sanders' announcement was designed to downplay a forthcoming meeting between the two leaders at the summit as a casual encounter rather than something more formal.
"Are they going to bump into each other and say hello? Certainly possible and likely," said Sanders. "But in terms of a scheduled, formal meeting, there’s not one on the calendar and we don’t anticipate that there will be one.”
The announcement came as Trump delivered a speech at the APEC summit on Friday promising to no longer accept “chronic trade abuses,” which he said cost millions of American jobs.