White House denies canceling Putin meeting over Mueller probe

White House denies canceling Putin meeting over Mueller probe

President Donald Trump said on Thursday that Russia is "not happy" about his decision to withdraw U.S. troops from Syria, but Russian President Vladimir Putin praised Trump's announcement that the troops will leave. The two leaders are pictured at a summit in Helsinki, Finland, on July 16. (Luke Vargas/TMN)

WASHINGTON — White House Press Secretary Sarah Sanders said Friday that Special Counsel Robert S. Mueller III’s probe did not spur President Donald Trump’s decision to scrap a planned meeting between him and Russian President Vladimir Putin.

In a statement, Sanders said the decision was a response to Russia holding sailors captive after their military shot at and seized three Ukrainian boats passing through the Kerch Strait near Crimea on Sunday.

“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,” Sanders said. “However, the reason for our canceled meeting is Ukraine. Hopefully, that will be resolved soon so that productive conversations can begin.”

The explanation mirrors what the president said in a tweet on Thursday.

The cancellation came shortly after Michael Cohen, Trump’s longtime personal attorney, pleaded guilty to misleading Congress over a planned Trump-branded real estate project in Moscow.

According to filings in the U.S. District Court for the Southern District of New York brought forward by Mueller, Cohen falsely told the committees that he had stopped pursuing the project in January 2016 when discussions with Trump and members of his family had actually gone on through June 2016.

Cohen also stated that he had lied to Congress about plans he made to travel to Russia, discussions he had with Trump about a separate trip by the then-candidate and exchanges he had with Russian officials.

Mueller is currently investigating potential collusion between the Trump campaign and the Russian government.

Trump has emphasized that the latest development in the probe does not touch upon collusion.

He has also defended the proposed project, tweeting Friday that it was “very legal & very cool” for him to pursue his business interests while running for president.

Both Trump and Putin are currently in Buenos Aires, Argentina for the G20 summit. The two-day summit started Friday.

Russian state media reported Friday that Kremlin spokesperson Dmitry Peskov said the two leaders will still have an opportunity for a less formal meeting while at the summit.

A White House official, however, cast doubt on the possibility.

“There is no scheduled pull-aside,” the official told reporters.

Trump and Putin previously met during a joint summit in Helsinki, Finland in July.

The meeting closed with the two leaders holding a press conference, one that resulted in bipartisan criticism against Trump after the U.S. president appeared to question the U.S. intelligence community’s assessment that Russia interfered in the 2016 presidential election.

A second meeting was expected to take place in Paris earlier this month, but Trump ultimately postponed a sit-down until the G20.

During a bilateral meeting with Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, Trump described the situation with Ukraine as the “sole” reason for the cancellation.

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