White House official says Russia ‘tricked us’ by publishing Oval Office photos

They’re “furious,” but it’s not like they didn’t know the photographer was there.

The photo of Sergey Lavrov, Donald Trump, and Sergey Kislyak you weren’t supposed to see. CREDIT: Russian Foreign Ministry Photo via AP
The photo of Sergey Lavrov, Donald Trump, and Sergey Kislyak you weren’t supposed to see. CREDIT: Russian Foreign Ministry Photo via AP

On Wednesday, President Trump met with Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov and Russian Ambassador Sergey Kislyak at the White House. Now the administration is “furious” that TASS, the Russian state-owned news agency, has published photos of the meeting.

There’s no shortage of theatrics leading up to the White House’s reactions.

First, the meeting was only supposed to be with Lavrov. Only Lavrov was scheduled to be in attendance, and only Lavrov was mentioned in the official White House readout of the meeting. Thus, it’s only because of the Russian agency’s photos that the public knows Kislyak was also present.

The White House shrugged off Kislyak’s presence, noting there’s nothing suspicious about meeting with an ambassador in the Oval Office.

But this ignores a significant amount of context. The meeting took place the morning after Trump fired FBI Director James Comey, who was investigating alleged ties between the Trump campaign and Russia. That firing came at the recommendation of Attorney General Jeff Sessions, who had supposedly recused himself from the investigation because he didn’t disclose meetings he had with Kislyak while he was serving as a Trump campaign surrogate.

With little believable explanation available for why Trump fired Comey except for his role the Russian investigation, it’s particularly conspicuous that Kislyak would then be in the Oval the very next day. Moreover, an ambassador meeting with the President is far more suspicious when the White House seems to intentionally try to hide it. And now the administration is “furious” that TASS published photos that are the only way anyone even knows Kislyak was present for the meeting.

A second aspect of the theatrics is the fact that when journalists were eventually invited into the Oval, neither Lavrov nor Kislyak were present. Instead, Trump was unexpectedly meeting with former Secretary of State Henry Kissinger.

The optics of this are rather incredible. Many lawmakers and pundits had spent much of the previous 24 hours comparing Trump’s firing of Comey to President Richard Nixon’s “Saturday Night Massacre,” when he fired an attorney general and a deputy attorney general because they wouldn’t remove the special prosecutor investigating the Watergate scandal. Kissinger was not implicated in Watergate, but it was still rather surprising Trump would have a surprise meeting with the man who served as Nixon’s Secretary of State and National Security Adviser. They discussed “Russia and various other matters,” according to the pool report.

The reason American journalists never saw Lavrov and Kislyak leave — or even knew Kislyak was there — was because the meeting was closed to them. When the TASS photos were first published, it obviously raised questions as to why Russian media was allowed in but not American media.

The Hill’s Jordan Fabian asked the White House for comment Wednesday afternoon, and the response was simply, “On background, our official photographer and their official photographer were present, that’s it.”

Responding Thursday morning to the news that the White House was “furious” about the photos, Politico’s Shane Goldmacher asked the obvious question:

It’s unclear — and at this point, unlikely — that any of the pictures taken by the White House’s official photographer will be released.

Moreover, the whole incident caught the attention of several former security officials. Colin Kahl, who served as Deputy Assistant to President Obama and National Security Adviser to Vice President Biden, questioned the merits of allowing a Russian a photographer into the Oval at all. Former CIA Deputy Director David Cohen shared his concerns.

Just two years ago, TASS was tied to a spy ring in New York. Three Russians affiliated with TASS were charged with being undeclared officers of the SVR, Russian’s foreign intelligence service. During the Cold War, TASS had similarly provided cover for KGB agents.

That provides interesting context for how the White House official characterized TASS publishing the photos. “They tricked us,” the official said. “They lie.”