Updated at 3:50 p.m. ET
Russian President Vladimir Putin won’t visit the United States this year after all, the White House said Wednesday, following an earlier invitation by President Trump after their recent summit in Helsinki.
“The president believes that the next bilateral meeting with President Putin should take place after the Russia witch hunt is over, so we’ve agreed that it will be after the first of the year,” national security adviser John Bolton said in a statement released by the administration.
The White House said last week that Trump had invited Putin to the United States, but the Kremlin had been quiet on the offer. Russian officials had said they might be open to Trump and Putin meeting on the sidelines of an international summit such as the Group of 20, but they had not committed to a trip to Washington, D.C.
It wasn’t immediately clear whether the Kremlin had formally turned down the White House behind the scenes or whether the U.S. decided to foreclose its offer before getting an official answer from Moscow.
It also wasn’t clear upon what basis Bolton believes that Justice Department special counsel Robert Mueller, whose investigation Trump calls the “witch hunt” to which Bolton alluded, might be finished by Dec. 31.
The special counsel’s office does not comment on its work or its schedules.
One unanswered question on Wednesday was whether Bolton’s statement effectively amounted to a policy that means Putin cannot come to the United States so long as Mueller’s work continues.
Trump’s supporters in Congress on Wednesday said they were giving him the benefit of the doubt on apparently rescinding his invitation to Putin.
“My guess is [Trump] wants to see if there’s a change in behavior,” said Sen. John Kennedy, R-La.
Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., who is working with Sen. Bob Menendez, D-N.J., on legislation to impose new sanctions on Russia in relation to interference in the 2016 election, said moving the second meeting with Putin was “probably a smart decision by the White House.”
“Getting away from the drama of the elections is probably a smart idea,” Graham said. He added that he felt Putin is an enemy of the U.S. but that “it’s OK to talk to your enemies.”
Sen. Chris Coons, D-Del., who sits on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee and who co-sponsored a resolution last week condemning Russia for interfering in the 2016 election, said he hoped any future meeting would be moved outside the United States.
“We still don’t know what happened in Helsinki,” he said.
Secretary of State Mike Pompeo appeared before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee on Wednesday afternoon to answer questions about what Trump and Putin discussed in their two-hour private meeting.
Pompeo told senators how strongly he has warned the Russians not to interfere in American elections after the wave of “active measures” they launched against the United States in 2016.
He also urged senators to consider the policies Trump has adopted toward Russia, apart from his rhetoric about the attack on the election. Trump’s administration has imposed 213 Russian sanctions, Pompeo said, expelled 60 Russian intelligence officers and supported the U.S. military posture in Europe.
Pompeo also called attention to the military aid the United States is providing to Ukraine and Georgia that, as he said, was not forthcoming under President Barack Obama.
The special counsel
Mueller, meanwhile, continues investigating the 2016 interference and whether any Americans conspired with it.
Trump, who denies there was any collusion by his campaign and the Russian effort, goes back and forth about what he accepts and what he rejects about what took place.
Sometimes — as in Helsinki with Putin — Trump says he doesn’t believe the Russians attacked the election. Other times, he says he accepts the conclusions of the U.S. intelligence community, which have since been endorsed by the Senate intelligence committee.
Most recently, Trump said on Tuesday that not only does he accept that foreign interference is taking place, he fears that this year, Russia will direct its energies in support of Democrats who want to claim majorities in the House and Senate.