Between multiple reports detailing the insane behind-the-scenes drama of James Comey’s firing by Donald Trump, Wednesday’s endless news dump included meetings between Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov, State Secretary Rex Tillerson, and the president himself. Which, as many observers point out, is rather strange considering the mounting evidence that suggests Comey wasn’t fired for his mishandling of the Hillary Clinton emails investigation, but rather for his continued pursuit of alleged ties between the Trump campaign and Russia. And then there’s the matter of the Russian news photographer in the Oval Office.
When Trump met with Lavrov and Russian Ambassador Sergey Kislyak, the latter of whom figures prominently in the Michael Flynn saga, members of the American press were barred from attending or documenting the occasion. However, a camera-wielding member of the Russian delegation “described… as Lavrov’s official photographer” was granted access to the Oval Office. He took photos of Trump speaking and shaking hands with the foreign minister and the ambassador, and White House personnel assumed said photos would be used for non-public matters.
As a tweet posted by the Russian Foreign Ministry shortly thereafter proves, this was not the case:
American reporters quickly figured out the photographer was actually a member of the Russian News Agency, or TASS, and that his photos were available for use via Getty. Needless to say, as CNN’s Jim Acosta discovered, White House officials were furious they had been misled by Lavrov and his associates. “They tricked us,” the anonymous official said. “That’s the problem with the Russians — they lie.” When pressed on why members of the American press weren’t allowed to attend, however, Acosta’s source insisted it was standard practice for meetings with “lower-level foreign officials” who weren’t heads of state.
More concerning than the apparent discrepancy regarding who was, and who wasn’t, allowed to document the meeting, is White House security. Administration officials downplayed these concerns, telling the Washington Post the Russian photographer “had to go through the same screening as a member of the U.S. press going through the main gate to the [White House] briefing room.” Yet former U.S. intelligence officials asked about the matter thought otherwise, “[citing] the danger that a listening device or other surveillance equipment could have been brought into the Oval Office while hidden in cameras or other electronics.”
Even former deputy CIA director David S. Cohen tweeted publicly about these concerns when former a former assistant to President Barack Obama, Colin Kahl, asked if letting a Russian photographer into the Oval Office was a “good idea.” Cohen matter-of-factly responded, “No, it was not.”
Cohen refused to comment further when reached by the Post, but other former U.S. intelligence officials they talked to couldn’t stress how ill-advised the entire affair was. Especially since White House officials were misled from the beginning regarding who the photographer was actually working for, and what Russian officials would do with the photographs once they had them.