The White House did not anticipate that the Russian government would allow its state news agency to post photographs of an Oval Office meeting between President Donald Trump, Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov and Russia’s ambassador to the US, a White House official said.
Photos of Wednesday’s meeting, taken by a Russian state news media photographer one day after Trump fired FBI Director James Comey amid questions about possible Trump campaign collusion with Moscow, were ultimately posted by Russia’s news agency, TASS.
The White House did not post photos of the meeting until Thursday. The State Department did post photos of Lavrov’s meeting with Secretary of State Rex Tillerson, but that was open to the press.
“They tricked us,” an angry White House official said.
“That’s the problem with the Russians — they lie,” the official added.
The Russians used the photos to troll the White House in its social media posts Wednesday. The Russian Foreign Ministry posted a photo of a smiling US President shaking hands with Lavrov on Twitter, adding strange and ironic optics to the questions already swirling around the White House over Comey’s firing.
In addition to posting the Lavrov-Trump picture, the foreign ministry also posted video of Lavrov joking about Comey’s firing.
In response to the White House official’s complaint that the White House was “tricked,” former Obama administration national security adviser Susan Rice said on Twitter: “No kidding!”
The White House blocked US reporters from photographing the meeting, opting to allow only White House and Russian photographers to capture images of Trump’s interactions with Lavrov. The White House official insisted it is standard practice to keep more of a lid on presidential meetings with lower-level foreign officials, as opposed to visits from heads of state, which typically come with greater press coverage.
The official also pushed back on critics who have questioned whether Trump should have met in the Oval Office with Russian ambassador to the US Sergey Kislyak, whose interactions with Trump campaign officials have come under scrutiny by federal and congressional investigators.
“It is ridiculous to say that an ambassador can’t meet with the President as part of a visit from a foreign minister. It’s standard practice,” the official said.
As for the timing of Lavrov’s meeting, it was scheduled well in advance of Comey’s firing. Russian President Vladimir Putin requested during a recent phone conversation that Trump meet with Lavrov, the official said.
The official also rejected security concerns about allowing Russian officials into the Oval Office, including Kislyak, who is widely considered to be a spy by US intelligence officials.
“What are we supposed to do?” the official asked. “Not meet with the Russians?”
Trump on Thursday confirmed to NBC News that Putin asked whether he would meet with Lavrov.
“When I spoke with Putin, he asked me whether or not I would see Lavrov,” Trump said. “Now what do I … should I say no I’m not gonna see him? I said I will see him.”
Trump said he wasn’t concerned about potential bad optics of meeting with Lavrov and Kislyak a day after firing Comey.
“I never thought about it,” he said. “It was set up a while ago and, frankly, I could have waited but what difference does it make?”
“I’m not looking for cosmetics,” he said. “I’m looking to do a great job for the country.”
Maria Zakharova, a spokeswoman with Russia’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs, tweeted Thursday: “The format did not imply that the photos were being kept secret.”