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article imageRussia scandal dogs Trump at G20 summit

By Sebastian Smith (AFP)     Nov 30, 2018 in World

US President Donald Trump's G20 summit got off to a rocky start Friday with explosive new allegations of improper links to Russia overshadowing what he had hoped would be a triumphant burst of trade diplomacy.

Trump scored a victory when he and the leaders of Mexico and Canada signed a huge new regional free trade deal known as the USMCA, replacing the quarter-century old NAFTA that the US president tore up after declaring it a job killer.

And he sounded cheerful at talks with his G20 host, Argentinian President Mauricio Macri, whom he called "very handsome," recalling that he'd once done business with his father in a New York real estate development.

But fallout from the Russia collusion probe followed Trump to Buenos Aires, where the US president canceled a long-awaited meeting with President Vladimir Putin and tweeted furiously about latest legal developments back home.

US President Donald Trump and US First Lady Melania Trump step off Air Force One upon their arrival ...
US President Donald Trump and US First Lady Melania Trump step off Air Force One upon their arrival in Argentina
JUAN MABROMATA, AFP

The cancellation of Friday's Putin meeting was ordered in an apparently abrupt decision aboard Air Force One as Trump flew from Washington on Thursday.

Coming just hours after a politically sensitive guilty plea by Trump's former lawyer brought investigators to focus on the president's attempts to build a Trump Tower in Moscow, there was immediate speculation that the president essentially wanted to dodge Putin.

The White House denied this, blaming western anger over Russia's attack last weekend on Ukrainian shipping for the cancellation.

But as the furor continued to swirl Friday, Trump spokeswoman Sarah Sanders was forced to issue another, more explicit denial.

Referring to the probe as "the Russian Witch Hunt Hoax," Sanders said it "probably does undermine our relationship with Russia," but insisted that Ukraine tensions were the sole reason for shutting out Putin.

- 'Very cool' Moscow deal -

Trump has always denied any collusion with a Russian effort to tilt the 2016 election in his favor, insisting there is no proof to back the accusations about meetings between his campaign and shadowy Russians, hacked emails and even an alleged blackmail dossier against him.

But the heat has risen with investigators homing in on the secretive territory of Trump's business empire and specifically his exploration of a property deal in Russia close to the time that he was seeking the presidency.

Donald Trump scored a victory when he and the leaders of Mexico and Canada  Enrique Pena Nieto and J...
Donald Trump scored a victory when he and the leaders of Mexico and Canada, Enrique Pena Nieto and Justin Trudeau signed a huge new regional free trade deal -- but fallout from the Russia collusion probe also followed Trump to the G20 Buenos Aires
SAUL LOEB, AFP

His ex-lawyer Michael Cohen made a surprise guilty plea on Thursday, where he admitted to lying to Congress about Trump's proposed -- but ultimately shelved -- plan for a Trump Tower in Moscow.

Cohen, who once said he would take a bullet for the Republican billionaire, but who has now turned into a star witness for prosecutors, said he lied when he testified that Trump's project was dropped in January 2016 -- well before Trump was the official Republican candidate.

In fact, Cohen now says, the project was discussed multiple times within the company beyond January 2016. Efforts to obtain Russian governmental approval were still being discussed as late as June of that year, he said.

Cohen also mulled traveling to Russia in connection with the project and in May 2016 was offered a possible introduction to either the Russian president or prime minister on the sidelines of a Russian forum in June 2016, he said.

Trump ultimately secured the Republican nomination for president just weeks later, in July 2016.

Lawyer Michael Cohen  who once said he would take a bullet for Donald Trump  has now turned into a s...
Lawyer Michael Cohen, who once said he would take a bullet for Donald Trump, has now turned into a star witness for prosecutors
EDUARDO MUNOZ ALVAREZ, AFP/File

On Friday, before launching into the G20 diplomatic schedule, Trump fired off two tweets angrily denying that he improperly mixed his business and political ambitions -- something that critics claim could have put the US leader under the Kremlin's influence.

"Oh, I get it! I am a very good developer, happily living my life, when I see our Country going in the wrong direction (to put it mildly)," Trump tweeted Friday.

"Against all odds, I decide to run for President & continue to run my business-very legal & very cool, talked about it on the campaign trail," he said.

"Lightly looked at doing a building somewhere in Russia," the Republican leader continued. "Put up zero money, zero guarantees and didn't do the project. Witch Hunt!"

Before leaving for the G20, Trump called Cohen "weak" and said "he is lying about a project that everybody knew about."

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