Editor’s Note: Frida Ghitis is a world affairs columnist for The Miami Herald and World Politics Review, and a former CNN producer and correspondent. The views expressed in this commentary are her own.
US journalists were barred from Trump's meeting with Lavrov and Kislyak, but Russian state media splashed pictures across the internet
Frida Ghitis: Russian officials are using Trump's bungled optics to have a good laugh at US, but this will backfire on Russia
Russian officials are having a grand old time laughing at the United States – and at President Donald Trump. The events of the past few days would seem to indicate that their efforts to aid Trump’s election may have paid off after all – and paid off handsomely – with a United States weakened by division, its government consumed with a crisis rooted in Moscow’s 2016 election interference.
But the Kremlin should temper its brazen mockery. This surreal drama is nowhere near finished.
The Russians’ barely-contained euphoria this week shone most visibly in Washington, of all places. As if acting out a script from Saturday Night Live, Trump welcomed top Russian officials to the White House on Wednesday. This was just hours after Trump’s bombshell firing of FBI Director James Comey, which drew outraged calls for the appointment of a special prosecutor to get to the bottom of election meddling. Politicians and pundits drew comparisons to Watergate and Richard Nixon’s doomed presidency.
The happy Russians? They had a special gift for Trump as he welcomed them to the Oval Office.
If the Trump administration were not plagued with stunning incompetence, someone might have realized that welcoming Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov and Russia’s ambassador to the United States, Sergei Kislyak, on a day when Trump was being accused of trying to quash an investigation into his campaign’s ties with Russia, was an extraordinarily stupid thing to do.
Or perhaps Trump, with his outsized self confidence, thinks himself immune to political fallout.
Or maybe he was thumbing his nose at the establishment. But that seems unlikely, since the White House had decided to ban the media from covering the Lavrov event, suggesting it had some understanding of how awful it would look – a case of terrible “optics,” to use Washington-speak.
Instead, the administration arranged a separate photo op with none other than Henry Kissinger, who worked for Nixon as national security adviser and then secretary of state. Another head-scratcher of a decision.
Trump had reportedly promised Putin that he would meet with Lavrov, who had been iced out by then-President Barack Obama. This was Lavrov’s first visit to Washington in four years. Trump went ahead with the meeting, apparently expecting it to go softly under radar.
Ah, but Russia had other plans. Before long, photos of the President jovially interacting with the Russians were splashed all over the internet.
Trump was reportedly furious: The Russians “tricked us,” one unnamed official told CNN. “That’s the problem with the Russians – they lie.”
White House officials had allowed a Russian photographer, described by the delegation as Lavrov’s photographer, to record the meeting. They claimed they didn’t know the photographer also works for the state-run news agency Tass. So: Russian state media had an exclusive on the Oval Office meeting from which American journalists had been barred.
Views on Comey's firing
The Russian embassy kept trolling the White House all day, tweeting invitations for the public to see more pictures on the foreign ministry’s Flickr account.
The photos offered a timely reminder of some of the protagonists in America’s real-life “House of Cards” (or is it the spy thriller “The Americans,” or perhaps “Game of Thrones?” My choice is “The Borgias,” the true story of a rapacious family nakedly advancing its own interests after the family scion takes power).
We saw Trump, all smiles, with Kislyak, the man viewed by US intelligence as a Russian spymaster. It was indeed the discovery of meetings with Kislyak that triggered the resignation of former National Security Advisor Michael Flynn, and the recusal by Attorney General Jeff Sessions.
And now we all have fresh snapshots of the President and the ambassador.
Lavrov was having such a great day in Washington that he cracked a joke after meetings at the State Department when a reporter asked if Comey’s firing “cast a shadow” over the talks. “Was he fired?” he quipped. “You’re kidding!” Such a jokester!
It could only help his mood that administration officials, hiding from the press as much as they could, did not hold a formal press conference after the talks – so Lavrov held his own, with Russia offering the only version of events.
There, too, he laughed at America. It must be “humiliating for the America people,” he said sarcastically, “to realize that the Russian Federation is controlling the situation in America.” He was answering a question about alleged Russian control of US policy –“fake information,” he scoffed.
His boss, Russian President Vladimir Putin, was also having a great time. When A CBS reporter caught him in full, bulky hockey gear on the way to the rink and asked how Comey’s firing would affect US-Russia relations, Putin replied, “Your question looks very funny for me. Don’t be angry with me,” he said, using his spokesman as interpreter, “we have nothing to do with that.”
Putin then glided on the ice and led his team to victory, scoring six goals in the exhibition match. But before the game was over, Putin also took a bad fall, landing hard on his posterior after trying to show off his skills.
All in all, it was an invigorating day for the Russian leader. Watching America in crisis as a direct result of Russia’s interference in the US election can only give him satisfaction. It weakens US institutions and slackens the people’s faith in the country’s democracy. It may also make some Russians think Putin’s autocratic style is not so bad after all. But the celebration is premature.
Trump’s actions have made it all but inconceivable that Trump, and much less Congress, will lift painful economic sanctions against Russia any time soon. In addition, the United States and much of the West now see Moscow as a threat.
It wasn’t very long ago that the prospects for a genuine partnership between the two powers looked within reach. In the end, much will depend on how the drama of the Trump presidency unfolds. But whether Trump manages to stay in office or not, there is a very good chance that Russia will not find much to laugh about.