President Donald Trump arrives and joins other heads of state for a family photo at the G20 summit, Friday, Nov. 30, 2018 in Buenos Aires, Argentina. From left in the front row are Singapore Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong, Russian President Vladimir Putin and Brazil President Michel Temer. From left on the top row are Rwanda President Paul Kagame and Saudi Arabia's crown Mohammed bin Salman. (AP Photo/Pablo Martinez Monsivais)

Trump's on-off dance with complicated acquaintances

December 01, 2018 - 12:52 pm

BUENOS AIRES, Argentina (AP) — Broken dates. Coy suggestions. Missed encounters. Private opportunities.

Amid weighty issues of state, another fascination at the Group of 20 summit has been President Donald Trump's will-he, won't-he dance with two fellow leaders who are something of international outcasts these days. Would Trump, who has an affinity for strongmen and a distaste for business as usual, stay away from Russian President Vladimir Putin and Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman?

On Day One of the summit in Argentina — fittingly, the land of the tango — the diplomatic quick-stepping was everywhere Friday.

Trump has not been shy in his praise of the crown prince and Putin in the past. But Prince Mohammed has been under global pressure lately over the murder of a Saudi journalist, and Putin has drawn fresh criticism for his country's mounting aggression against Ukraine.

So Trump canceled his plans to meet with Putin and left bin Salman off his public agenda. But even then, Trump said he looked forward to meeting Putin soon. And he never fully ruled out seeing bin Salman, saying Thursday, "I would have met with him but we didn't set that one up."

There were still plenty of opportunities for casual encounters among the leaders as they shuttled between one-on-one sessions, group meetings, meals, a cultural performance, a formal dinner and what is known as the "family photo," a type of class picture where all the leaders pose stiffly for the cameras.

The first real opportunity for public interaction came in the photo session. Trump chatted warmly with the leaders of Canada, Japan and France but walked past bin Salman and Putin, giving the former at most a casual glance. Another photo session with leaders and their spouses in the evening did not reveal any substantive interaction.

All the while, Trump powered through meetings with any number of leaders. He began the day with the Argentine president, then signed a trade deal with Mexico and Canada before separate, more casual meetings with the leaders of South Korea and Australia and a formal "trilateral" meeting with Japan and India.

Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov called the canceled Trump-Putin meeting a missed opportunity, saying it didn't "help settling a number of important international problems." He added, with resignation, "Love can't be forced."

But did Trump interact with bin Salman or Putin behind the scenes, away from prying eyes? A senior White House official said Trump and bin Salman had exchanged pleasantries during a leaders' session, as he had with nearly all the other leaders. The official spoke on condition of anonymity due to the sensitive nature of the crown prince's situation.

Trump told reporters later: "We had no discussion. We might, but we had none."

With Putin, Trump did have some interaction, though the details on how extensive it may have been remained murky. White House spokeswoman Sarah Huckabee Sanders said Trump "exchanged pleasantries" with Putin before the photo, as he did with other leaders.

Sanders on Saturday confirmed additional contact between Trump and Putin at Friday's dinner. "As is typical at multilateral events, President Trump and the First Lady had a number of informal conversations with world leaders at the dinner last night, including President Putin."

The Russian leader's spokesman had said Putin and Trump "said hi to each other" earlier in the day.

In relative isolation, Putin and bin Salman, each in relative isolation, at least made nice with each other. At a leaders' session Friday, they beamed widely at one another while sharing extended, enthusiastic handshake.

For Trump and his complicated friends, the first day ended with a group excursion to Teatro Colon, the city's opera house, for a show that included — wait for it — a whole lot of dance numbers.

And with another day to go, the diplomatic footwork was sure to continue.

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