Team Trump is “either in bed with the Russians or too stupid to understand the severity of this mistake,” an official fumed after Kremlin press got exclusive Oval Office access.
Senior members of the Trump administration are livid that the White House allowed the Russian government to steer the narrative of the president’s Wednesday meeting with top Russian diplomats by giving Kremlin-backed media exclusive access to the event.
The White House did not allow American press into the meeting between President Donald Trump, Russian foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov, and Russia’s ambassador to Washington, Sergey Kislyak. But it did admit a photographer from TASS, a state-owned Russian news service. Its photos were subsequently posted on TASS’s website, giving that outlet a monopoly on publishable visuals of the meeting.
Russian government Twitter accounts shared photos of the event shortly after its conclusion. They revealed Kislyak’s presence—a fact that was not even mentioned in the official White House readout of the meeting. Some U.S. officials suspect Kislyak, whose conversations with Trump’s former National Security Adviser have fed an FBI investigation of his campaign, is a Kremlin spy—or at least spy-adjacent.
Two senior administration officials, one an Obama holdover and the other a Trump appointee, told The Daily Beast that the resulting reliance of U.S. media on a propaganda arm of a foreign government let Russia set the public tone of the meeting and embarrassed the administration amid already contentious discussions with Russian diplomats.
Both officials spoke on condition of anonymity in order to candidly express their views. The White House did not immediately respond to a request for comment.
“This isn’t an ‘America First’ policy,” one of the officials fumed of the White House’s decision “to let the biggest perpetrator of fake news into the Oval Office.” Trump, the official added, is “either in bed with the Russians or too stupid to understand the severity of this mistake. Either way, the implications are truly terrifying.”
The hurt feelings inside the White House weren’t much sunnier.
“Yes, I admit the optics are bad—that was not intentional or anything,” one senior White House official told The Daily Beast. “I literally face-palmed with this one.”
The official noted that White House senior staff and press office were “sour” about the way this played out because top White House staff “somehow” did not foresee that the photos of Trump’s chummy, American-press-free meeting with Kislyak and Lavrov would be almost immediately published by TASS.
Administration officials also claimed on Thursday that they had been misled into believing that TASS was documenting the event internally, just as an official White House photographer on hand for the meeting was. “We were not informed by the Russians that their official photographer was dual-hatted and would be releasing the photographs on the state news agency,” an administration official told The Washington Post.
Furthermore, National Security Agency director Mike Rogers said Thursday that the NSA was not consulted ahead of time regarding the Russian-government visit to the Oval Office that produced what amounted to glam shots for Russian state-news and official social-media channels.
Following Wednesday’s meeting, members of the White House press corp were finally allowed into the Oval Office. But by that time, the ambassador and foreign minister had safely ducked out, and U.S. press found President Trump and Henry Kissinger, the highly controversial Nixon-era secretary of state, sitting side-by-side for a photo op.
What happened during Kissinger and Trump’s private discussion on Wednesday? The conversation quickly steered towards Russia as a regional power, a Trump administration official, who was briefed on the exchanges, confirmed to The Daily Beast. Kissinger advised President Trump on possible “avenues of cooperation” that could be negotiated between the two geopolitical adversaries, especially with regards to the fight against ISIS, and Islamist terror groups in Syria.
On Thursday morning, U.S. newspapers such as The New York Times were forced to credit the Russian Foreign Ministry for photos appearing in their publications. “It’s beyond insulting, it really is,” another senior administration official said of U.S. media’s reliance on the news service of an adversarial foreign government.
“It’s boneheaded on so many levels but it’s certainly insulting to the U.S. press to be forced to use TASS photos and to identify [Russian state media] as its source for a meeting between Lavrov and Trump,” the official said.
Asked about the White House’s explanation for TASS’s presence at the event, the official suggested that it knew or should have known the nature of the news service’s work—and that its photos would eventually be published. “Of course they knew what TASS was, everybody does,” the official said. “If they didn’t then it’s a pretty shameful admission, honestly.”
The embarrassment that officials described at TASS’s access to the event compounded frustration at Lavrov’s opportunistic trolling at the meeting. Peppered with press questions on his way to the event, Lavrov sarcastically feigned shock that Trump had the day before fired FBI director James Comey amid his investigation into alleged Russian meddling in the 2016 presidential election.
On Thursday, a spokesman for Lavrov was indignant at suggestions that TASS’s presence at the meeting might have left the Oval Office vulnerable to espionage activities such as wiretapping.
Those reports are “making our [TASS] correspondents feel like Jews in 1933,” the spokesman said.