White House bars US press from Donald Trump's meeting with Sergey Lavrov but allows Russian state media in

Former CIA deputy director among those raising concerns over potential security risk in Oval Office

Lizzie Dearden
Thursday 11 May 2017 09:58 BST
Donald Trump with Sergei Lavrov
Donald Trump with Sergei Lavrov (Alexander Shcherbak\TASS via Getty Images)

The White House barred reporters from witnessing the meeting between Donald Trump and Sergey Lavrov but granted access to Russian state media, it has emerged.

David S Cohen, the former deputy director of the CIA, is among those alarmed by the decision to allow a Tass news agency photographer into the Oval Office, which some argued could present a security risk.

When a former national security adviser to the Obama administration asked whether it was a “good idea” to let a Kremlin-linked photographer and their equipment into the high security area on Twitter, Mr Cohen replied: “No, it was not.”

The US President’s meeting with Mr Lavrov was listed as “closed press” on his schedule, meaning media would not be allowed inside to document the meeting, unlike those with heads of state including Angela Merkel.

Earlier in the day, bemused journalists had also been summoned to attend an unannounced meeting between Mr Trump and Henry Kissinger.

So there was surprise when Tass news agency started publishing photos of Mr Trump and the Russian foreign minister, also showing the US President smiling and shaking hands with ambassador Sergey Kislyak in images shared by the Russian embassy.

Trump says Comey was fired for 'not doing a good job'

Officials in the White House, which released no images through its own channels, were reportedly surprised by the output.

“Our official photographer and their official photographer were present - that’s it,” an aide told the New York Times.

Another member of the Trump administration said the White House had been misled, being told the photographer was attached to Mr Lavrov by Russian officials who did not disclose 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 official told the Washington Post.

The White House played down speculation over a potential bug, saying the photographer and his equipment were subject to security screening.

Russian intelligence agents were previously accused of planting a “highly sophisticated listening device” in a State Department meeting room in the late 1990s.

The latest concerns came amid alarm over Mr Trump’s decision to fire FBI director James Comey, who was leading an investigation into links between his campaign team and Russia as part of probes into alleged Kremlin interference in the election.

A Russian foreign ministry photo showing Donald Trump with Sergey Lavrov and Russian Ambassador Sergey Kislyak during their meeting in the White House on 10 May (EPA)

Blocking the press from the President’s meeting with Mr Lavrov prevented awkward questions being fired at Mr Trump over the dismissal, with him previously walking out of an executive order signing ceremony while being questioned over Russia investigations.

The appearance of Mr Kislyak, whose conversations with Michael Flynn resulted in Mr Trump firing his former national security adviser, also came as a shock to observers in Washington.

Mr Trump’s decision to hold publicised talks with Mr Lavrov himself was viewed as unusual, as foreign ministers are normally met by their counterparts during state visits.

The Russian foreign minister, a close ally of Vladimir Putin, angrily dismissed questions over alleged interference in the US election at a press conference later on Wednesday.

Mr Lavrov said the Kremlin was watching reports but did not even “touch on” the topic with Mr Trump.

“I thought we were all grow-ups here - I never thought I would have to answer such questions,” he replied to a journalist.

“We know Donald Trump’s position and that of those who try to prove otherwise.

“The problem is that nobody has ever uncovered a single fact, a single shred of evidence.”

US intelligence agencies concluded that Mr Putin had ordered an effort to disrupt the 2016 election including the Democratic National Committee email hack to damage Hillary Clinton, in a report leaked in January.

Mr Trump dismissed the report and other statements from his own intelligence agencies, having repeatedly praised the Russian President during the election campaign.

He described his talks with Mr Lavrov as “very, very good”.

When asked whether Mr Comey’s dismissal had affected his meeting, Mr Trump replied: “Not at all”.

He said they discussed the civil war in Syria, where Russia backs President Bashar al-Assad and was angered by the US’ decision to bomb one of his air bases following a chemical attack.

”We want to see the killing, the horrible killing, stopped in Syria as soon as possible and everyone is working toward that end,“ Mr Trump told reporters.

The White House said he ”raised the possibility of broader cooperation on resolving conflicts in the Middle East and elsewhere“, while underscoring ”the need for Russia to rein in the Assad regime, Iran and Iranian proxies”.

Senior Democratic Senator Dick Durbin said the Oval Office encounter was a prime publicity opportunity for Russia.

“President Trump in these pictures, is shaking hands with Russians, and the Kremlin is gleefully tweeting these pictures around the world,” he told the Senate.

The American press contingent was previously excluded from Rex Tillerson’s trip to Moscow last month, when the Secretary of State was kept waiting for hours before meeting Mr Putin in the Kremlin.

Russia brokered a deal for de-escalation zones with backing from Iran and Syrian opposition supporter Turkey during ceasefire talks in the Kazakh capital Astana last week.

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