At a time of strain between the White House and the media over coverage of the new administration, reporters raised questions Wednesday as to why a photographer from the Russian media, but not the U.S. press, was apparently allowed into an Oval Office meeting between President Trump and Russian officials.
The issue surfaced after photos of the meeting, including Trump shaking hands with Russian foreign minister Sergei Lavrov and controversial Russian ambassador Sergei Kislyak, appeared in the Russian media.
The images were taken by a photographer from TASS, the Russian state-owned new agency.
The issue was further inflamed by the presence 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.
Ambassador Kislyak and President Trump / Посол С.Кисляк и Президент Д.Трамп pic.twitter.com/Ckkx2YL9KX— Russia in USA 🇷🇺 (@RusEmbUSA) May 10, 2017
The photos were taken by TASS photographer Alexander Shcherbak and credited to him by the agency, which included a copyright symbol in photo captions in its own news reports of the meeting. The photos were also distributed by the Associated Press, which credits the Russian Foreign Ministry as the source, and Getty Images, which credits TASS.
After the photos began circulating, members of the White House press corps inquired whether the Russian media had been allowed into the closed meetings.
The White House responded, according to a White House pool report, by saying, "On background, our official photographer and their official photographer were present, that's it."
Talking Points Memosays TASS Washington bureau chief, Andrei Sitov, told TPM initially that no one from his Washington bureau was present at the meeting, but later revised his comments.
“Apparently the TASS person was admitted at the request of the Russian Foreign Ministry as the official photographer for the Russian side,” Sitov told TPM in a later email. “He is permanently assigned to cover FM Lavrov. His pictures from the meeting are available at the Russian FM’s Flickr. I was not even aware of this.”
Frequently the White House press pool is allowed in the room at the start of an official meetings to take photograph and, if possible, to ask the participants questions.
In addition to the photos, TASS provided comments by Lavrov on the Oval Office meeting with Trump, which had followed bilateral talks between him and Secretary of State Rex Tillerson.
Lavrov told TASS that in the meeting with Trump, "(we) discussed, first and foremost, our cooperation on the international stage."
"At present, our dialogue is not as politicized as it used to be during Obama’s presidency," Lavrov said. "The Trump administration, including the president himself and the secretary of state, are people of action who are willing to negotiate."