Analysis

Why the G-20 Leaders Are Gloating Behind Trump’s Back

Amid the latest Russia revelations, the president’s foreign rivals will be coldly calculating how long he can last.

U.S. President Donald Trump answers questions from the press while departing the White House Nov. 29 in Washington, D.C. (Win McNamee/Getty Images)
U.S. President Donald Trump answers questions from the press while departing the White House Nov. 29 in Washington, D.C. (Win McNamee/Getty Images)

U.S. President Donald Trump flew to Argentina on Thursday to attend the G-20 summit—a forum born of American weakness—at what is perhaps the weakest moment of his presidency.  

In a stunning turn that effectively kneecapped Trump as he was about to board his helicopter, his former lawyer Michael Cohen pleaded guilty Thursday to lying to Congress about a major Moscow real estate project that Trump had said he was not pursuing while running for president in 2016. In fact, Cohen admitted, he and the Trump Organization were actively trying to land a deal with Russia fixer Felix Sater until a month after Trump became the presumptive Republican nominee in early May 2016.

All during those months, candidate Trump was telling the American public that he had no business interests in Russia. President Trump’s response Thursday was that “even if he [Cohen] was right, it doesn’t matter because I was allowed to do whatever I wanted during the campaign.” U.S. investigators may disagree.

The Cohen admission reopened a host of questions about Trump’s ties with Russia that the president has, in recent days, been trying to squelch. All of a sudden, the soon-to-be Democratic-controlled House of Representatives may be forced to examine anew whether Trump lied his way into high office—a potentially impeachable offense—and whether he is obstructing justice by refusing to appoint a new attorney general after he dismissed Jeff Sessions and removed oversight of the special counsel’s Russia investigation from Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein.

Trump may also be vulnerable to charges that he lied to special counsel Robert Mueller, who is investigating the president’s Russia ties. According to the New York TimesMueller planned to ask Trump himself the following question about the Trump Moscow project: “What communication did you have with Michael D. Cohen, Felix Sater, and others, including foreign nationals, about Russian real estate developments during the campaign?” Trump sent in his response to Mueller before Cohen made his stunning admission on Thursday—although the president’s lawyers surely were aware of news reports last spring that prosecutors had emails showing that Trump’s business negotiations with Russia were ongoing.

At the very least, the new developments put Trump’s 2020 re-election prospects in jeopardy at a time when six out of ten Americans continue to disapprove of his performance. 

All of which means that Trump will have to deal with more than the usual forced grins and awkward handshakes when he confronts his summit counterparts in Buenos Aires. He will also be tiptoeing through political landmines, and avoiding a lot of curious (and perhaps gloating) foreign leaders who will doubtlessly be wondering how long he can last in office.

Already the president had been forced to bypass a sit-down with Mohammed bin Salman, whom Trump has defended despite the CIA’s own conclusion that the Saudi crown prince ordered the murder of journalist Jamal Khashoggi.

Now, after flip-flopping repeatedly over a planned meeting with Russian President Vladimir Putin, Trump is steering clear of that as well. Trump plainly wanted to hold the one-on-one: Though he’d hinted the day before he might call it off because of Putin’s aggression against Ukraine last weekend, shortly before leaving for the summit, he told reporters, “I probably will be meeting with President Putin. I think it’s a very good time to have the meeting.”

But barely an hour later, while aboard Air Force One en route to Argentina, Trump changed his mind again, tweeting that he’d called off the Putin sit-down “based on the fact that the ships and sailors have not been returned to Ukraine from Russia.”

Trump was referring to Putin’s seizure of Ukrainian ships and sailors, several of whom were wounded by Russian fire, in the Kerch Strait between Russia and Ukraine on Sunday. But until the Cohen revelations, the U.S. president had not been inclined to react too strongly to the incident. “We don’t like what’s happening either way. … And hopefully, it will get straightened out,” Trump said previously. His national security advisor, John Bolton, had said the Putin meeting was on the books.

Evidently the White House realized on Thursday that the optics of a Putin meeting, coming at a time when Trump was already accused of being soft on Putin and  the Russia investigation was re-energized, would be a public relations disaster.

The G-20 is a recent and somewhat odd institution—probably the first major international institution to be created without a dominant U.S. role as parent or midwife (though Washington did help oversee member selection). Convened in 1999 by Europe and Canada as a gathering of finance ministers and central bankers and largely ignored for the next decade, it won a battlefield promotion during the financial crisis of 2008, when it was elevated by common consent to summit status because it included China, South Korea, and other important U.S. creditor nations. It has since turned into the world’s preeminent economic forum, eclipsing the G-7 gathering of leading industrial nations.

The G-20 thus came of age amid U.S. weakness and culpability, at a time when the world was pointing fingers at Wall Street as the chief culprit in the Great Recession. With so many cooks tending the broth and no real leadership, consensus on trade, capital rules and other issues generally eludes the G-20 leaders. Above all, Washington has rarely been able to get its way on any major issue, as it so often has at the G-7, NATO, or the United Nations Security Council.

This conclave will no doubt be even more cacophonous. Trump will strut his way through the G-20 sessions as is his wont, but he won’t be able to avoid a lot of uncomfortable encounters. What will he say to British Prime Minister Theresa May, now that Trump has offhandedly trashed the Brexit deal she spent two years negotiating? How will he sidestep Mohammed bin Salman, who might have expected at least a meet-and-greet for the $400 billion investment he promised? Or French President Emmanuel Macron, now that Trump has all but called publicly for the right-wing nationalists to defeat him in the next election?

A plainly rattled White House also announced Thursday that Trump’s formal meetings scheduled with the leaders of Turkey and South Korea at the G-20 would be downgraded to informal “pull asides,” in the words of White House press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders. Relations with both those countries also have been tense.

The one big meeting that may go forward is Trump’s dinner with Chinese President Xi Jinping. Trump, who may be worried that the U.S. economic boom will tail off on his watch—he has been relentlessly criticizing his own Federal Reserve chief, Jerome Powell, for edging up interest rates—suggested before his departure on Thursday that he might be close to a deal to end his tariff war with China.

“I think we’re very close to doing something with China, but I don’t know that I want to do it,” Trump told reporters.

He may not want to do it. But he certainly wants to change the headlines.

Michael Hirsh is a senior correspondent at Foreign Policy@michaelphirsh

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