The White House was outmaneuvered by the Kremlin over the dissemination of photos of a rare Oval Office meeting between President Trump and top Russian diplomats that was closed to the U .S. press.
Although the media was barred from Wednesday's meeting, the Russian-owned TASS news agency shortly afterward began circulating more than a dozen photos showing a beaming Trump shaking hands with visiting Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov and Russian Ambassador Sergei Kislyak.
The official White House photographer did not releases anyh photos, leaving TASS and the Russian foreign ministry as the lone source for the images.
After U.S. reporters began inquiring about the source of the photos, the White House responded by saying, "On background, our official photographer and their official photographer were present, that's it."
According to Talking Points Memo and other news outlets, the TASS bureau chief in Washington explained later that Alexander Shcherbak, the TASS photographer who travels with Lavrov, was allowed into the meeting at the request of the Russian foreign ministry as the official photographer for the Russian side.
The Associated Press and other agencies distributed the photos, labeling them as handouts from the Russian Foreign Ministry. TASS also used them in its own news reports, giving its photographer the credit line.
According to The Washington Post, Russian officials had described Shcherbak as Lavrov’s official photographer without disclosing that he also worked for TASS.
“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,” the administration official said, according to the Post.
The White House, which frequently distributes official photos of meetings and events, did not release its own images.
The widespread distribution of the Russian photos was a public relations coup for the Russians, who have been trying for several years to secure an Oval office meeting for its foreign minister as a counterpoint to the strained relations between the two countries. Normally, such White House meetings are reserved for heads of state.
Because of strained relations, it was Lavrov's first visit to the White House since 2013, despite lobbying efforts by the Russians, according to Politico, which reported that Trump agreed to receive him in the Oval Office at the request of Russian President Vladimir Putin.
The issue is particularly sensitive because of the presence at the meeting of Kislyak, who has been at the center of several controversies involving administration officials, including now fired National Security Adviser Michael Flynn and Attorney General Jeff Sessions. The Russian embassy even tweeted a photograph of Trump smiling broadly as he put his arm around the diplomat while shaking his hand in the Oval Office.
Flynn was fired in February for lying to Vice President Mike Pence by denying that he had discussed the issue of U.S. sanctions with Kislyak. Sessions recused himself from any investigations involving the Trump administration and Russia after acknowledging that he had failed to tell senators during his confirmation hearing that he had met previously with he diplomat.
In addition, Kislyak was brought into the Trump Tower in New York in December out of the sight of reporters for a meeting with Flynn and Jared Kushner, Trump's son-in-law and now senior advisor, according to The New York Times.
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