President Donald Trump might have been hoping that this year’s G20 summit would be less awkward than last year’s. So far, no go.
On his first day in Japan, he met with Russian President Vladimir Putin (as he did last year) in a closed door meeting with the ghost of 2016 election meddling — and his failure to hold Russia accountable — still hanging over his head.
Since last year’s summit, the special counsel Robert Mueller’s report — also known as the Report on the Investigation into Russian Interference in the 2016 Presidential Election — has been released, documenting the extent of Russia’s hand in the 2016 election that saw Trump take office. But the president has also admitted that he would, in fact, accept information from foreign agents on a political opponent (which is illegal).
When pressed by reporters this week on whether he’d brought up election meddling in his G20 meeting, Trump jokingly wagged his finger at Putin and said “Don’t meddle in the election, please. Don’t meddle in the election,” as the Russian president sat next to him smiling.
Trump’s meeting with Putin was closed, so the odds of the public knowing what the two men actually discussed are slim. Among the topics discussed were probably current U.S.-Iran tensions: The Trump administration has been applying increasing threats and pressures (military and economic) on Iran in an attempt to get it to come back to the table to renegotiate the terms of the 2015 nuclear deal the U.S. violated last year.
Russia is among the other signatories to the deal who want to maintain it, along with China, France, the United Kingdom, and Germany, all of which are at the G20 as well.
Back in MBS’s arms
The only friend Trump has in the room when it comes to his campaign against Iran is Saudi Arabia. At last year’s G20 summit in Argentina — mere weeks after a Saudi murder squad killed and then disappeared the remains of dissident journalist Jamal Khashoggi, Trump maintained some distance from Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman (also known as MBS).
Putin was MBS’s only friend at the 2018 summit, repeatedly photographed sharing a laugh with the crown prince:
Since then, a mountain of evidence gathered by U.S. intelligence agencies as well as international investigators has proven the Saudi hand in Khashoggi’s murder. Reports point to how MBS grew impatient with the journalist’s criticism — on the pages of the Washington Post, no less — of Saudi Arabia’s crackdown on human rights.
Trump has dismissed U.S. intelligence on the Khashoggi case and continues to support Saudi Arabia’s deadly participation in the war in Yemen (pushing through $8 billion in weapons sales by declaring it a matter of national emergency). On Friday, the president of the United States took his place next to MBS in the official G20 group photo, where Trump seemed to be flashing MBS his signature OK sign.
Saudi Arabia has, for its part, been among the few vocal supporters of Trump’s “maximum pressure” campaign against Iran, urging the United States to use “all means of force and firmness” against Iran.
His host, Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, has been trying to get Trump to deescalate tensions with North Korea (over the nuclear weapons it possesses) and Iran (over nuclear weapons it does not have).
Abe has tried to run interference every which way, but things have only gotten worse on all fronts: The U.S. was reportedly 10 minutes away from launching a military strike on Iran last week, while talks with North Korea came to a halt after a disastrous summit in Hanoi in February.
Facing unresolved trade wars
In addition to having to face European leaders who he knows fundamentally disagree with his protectionist trade bent — he’s slapped steel and aluminum tariffs on the E.U., with more to come — Trump will also be meeting his toughest challenger: China’s President Xi Jinping.
The meeting, scheduled for Saturday, is not anticipated to produce any major breakthroughs in the trade war Trump launched against China a year ago.
Experts have told ThinkProgress that at best, the two leaders will agree to set a date to continue the trade talks, which have been in tatters for over two months now.
After a volley of tariffs was exchanged between the two global economic giants, talks finally seemed to be progressing earlier this year.
That is, until U.S. negotiators accused China of backtracking on a number of agreed-upon provisions (focusing on U.S. access to the Chinese market and the issue of forced technology transfers.
China responded by saying it was willing to “fight to the end” causing uncertainty in global markets as well as the U.S. economy, where agricultural and manufacturing sectors are taking a hit, and consumers are bracing for the same in coming months.
Trump grew so desperate to meet with Xi that he threatened to raise tariffs if the Chinese president refused to meet with him. He told reporters on Friday that the meeting, “At a minimum it will be productive. We’ll see what happens and what comes out of it.”