If President Donald Trump had been hoping to erase any implications that his abrupt firing of FBI Director James Comey was tied to the agency’s investigation into Russian election meddling, he seemed to veer wildly off course by midday.
Rather than avoiding the topic, Trump appeared to embrace a set of images that put him smack in the middle of the Russia swirl, with a visual reminder of the Nixon administration to boot.
Pictured for the first time since he fired Comey, Trump stood in the White House, grinning widely, as he shook the hand of Russian Ambassador Sergey Kislyak — the very man several of his associates have said they met with during last year’s campaign.
Minutes later, Trump welcomed to the Oval Office Henry Kissinger, who served as Secretary of State under Richard Nixon. Trump drew immediate comparisons to the former president after firing Comey since Nixon, too, fired the man leading an investigation into his associates’ actions.
Trump’s meeting with Kislyak came as part of a meeting with Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov, who was in Washington to talk to Secretary of State Rex Tillerson. White House officials confirmed the meeting only after news of Comey’s dismissal emerged on Tuesday evening.
The White House insisted that Trump’s meetings Wednesday had been long-planned and nothing further should be read into them, including that they were an attempt to poke a finger in the eyes of Democrats animated over the Russia investigation and Comey’s firing.
“These were meetings that had been on the books for a while,” said deputy press secretary Sarah Sanders. “They didn’t just happen this morning.”
At the time of his departure, Comey was leading an investigation into Russia’s interference in last year’s presidential election, including looking into possible collusion between Trump campaign advisers and Moscow.
Former national security adviser Michael Flynn was fired for lying about his contacts with Kislyak late last year. Other administration officials have also faced scrutiny for their contacts with the longtime Russian envoy. Attorney General Jeff Sessions recused himself from the Russia inquiry after it was discovered he spoke privately with Kislyak last summer and Trump’s son-in-law Jared Kushner also acknowledged that he had met with Kislyak last year in Trump Tower.
Current and former US intelligence officials have described Kislyak as a top spy and recruiter of spies, a notion that Russian officials have dismissed.
Despite the ongoing controversy, photos released by the Kremlin showed Trump, Lavrov and Kislyak with grins as they greeted each other in the Oval Office.
In one of the photos, Trump is gesturing to the ambassador while making a remark to Lavrov. In the next one, Kislyak is covering his mouth as he laughs.
It’s not clear what the men were laughing at, however; reporters weren’t allowed into the meeting, and the only images that emerged came from government accounts.
A later meeting with Kissinger, however, wasn’t as restricted. The session didn’t appear on the President’s schedule earlier in the day, and members of the media were scrambled at the last minute to shoot a photo-op of the session.
Initially, the White House indicated the photo spray would be with Lavrov. Instead, it was Nixon’s former top diplomat in the chair next to Trump.
Trump said he was meeting with Kissinger to talk “about Russia and various other matters.”
Since he fired Comey, Trump has faced comparisons to Kissinger’s boss, whose dismissal of a special prosecutor in 1973 was a precursor to the Watergate scandal.
Democrats have been quick to make the comparison, suggesting Trump feared Comey was delving too deeply into the Russia probe.
“This is Nixonian,” Pennsylvania Sen. Bob Casey said, blasting the move.
Trump, however, justified his firing of Comey Wednesday.
“He wasn’t doing a good job. Very simply. He was not doing a good job,” Trump told reporters while sitting alongside Kissinger.