Russian officials, at least, seemed to be enjoying the turmoil in Washington, and they brought along an official photographer to document it.
Last Updated: Thursday, 11:04 a.m. EDT
Russian officials, at least, seem to be enjoying the turmoil that’s engulfed Washington since last night, when President Donald Trump abruptly fired FBI Director James Comey, to derail his investigation into possible collusion between the Trump campaign and Russia.
The first hint of that came when the country’s foreign minister, Sergey Lavrov, arrived at the State Department on Wednesday and immediately joked about Comey’s firing. Lavrov turned comic after his host, Secretary of State Rex Tillerson, uttered a few words of welcome. As the two men then turned to leave, Andrea Mitchell of NBC News shouted out: “Does the Comey firing cast a shadow over your talks, gentlemen?”
While Tillerson ignored the question and started to walk away, Lavrov widened his eyes in mock surprise and asked, “Was he fired?” Informed that Comey was indeed fired, the foreign minister pretended to be shocked, shocked, saying, “You’re kidding! You’re kidding!” He then dismissively shook his head and walked off.
Just in case anyone missed Lavrov trolling the American reporter — the same one he had scolded last month in Moscow — the Russian foreign ministry then posted the video on Twitter, along with a transcription of the boss’s gag.
The trolling only seemed to increase later in the day, when the foreign ministry released images of Lavrov and Russia’s ambassador to the United States, Sergey Kislyak, bantering with Trump in the Oval Office.
Since the White House had barred American journalists from reporting on Trump’s meeting with the diplomats, the only available images were those released by the Russian government, via the foreign ministry’s press office, and the state-owned news agency Tass.
The Russian Embassy in Washington also made sure to draw attention to a photograph of Trump grinning as he shook hands with Kislyak — the same Russian ambassador he fired his national security adviser, Michael Flynn, for talking to about U.S. sanctions related to Russian efforts to get him elected president.
The Russian troll game is SO GOOD you are all powerless before it.— Miriam Elder (@MiriamElder) May 10, 2017
Kislyak’s presence was not unusual — he attended a similar Oval Office meeting in 2009, when Lavrov met then-President Barack Obama and his secretary of state, Hillary Clinton — but it might have gone unreported if the Russian government had not released its own images. The Trump White House failed to mention that Kislyak was there in its text-only account of the meeting with Lavrov.
Michael McFaul, Obama’s ambassador to Russia, pointed out that the White House press corps had been allowed in to hear the opening remarks from Obama and Lavrov in 2009.
An unidentified senior Trump administration official told the Washington Post later that the Russian diplomats had misled them about the photographer, who was described as the foreign minister’s official photographer. They were surprised that photographs of the president grinning and shaking hands with Lavrov and Kislyak were posted online by the ministry and provided to news organizations.
“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 White House official said, revealing a fundamental misunderstanding of how state control of the press works in Russia.
“They tricked us,” a White House official told CNN. “They lie.”
WH furious over Russian government photos of Trump meeting with Lavrov/Kislyak. "They tricked us," an official said of Russians "They lie."— Jim Acosta (@Acosta) May 11, 2017
By Thursday morning, the fact that American reporters were shocked that Russian state media had somehow been granted exclusive access to a photo-op in the White House had become a subject of further amusement for Russian officials.
Maria Zakharova, the Russian foreign minister’s spokeswoman — who referred to an image of Lavrov grinning as Trump shook his hand as an “epic photo” on her Facebook page — confirmed to the Russian state news site Sputnik that the Oval Office images had been taken by Alexandr Scherbak, “a Tass news agency photo correspondent who was acting as Lavrov’s personal photographer.”
For good measure, late Wednesday night, Zakharova also compiled and shared a collection of more than 200 tweets from stunned American journalists reacting to the White House getting played by the Russians, calling it evidence of “real hysteria in the U.S. media.”