In yet another strange and scary White House incident, President Donald Trump welcomed Russian Ambassador Sergey Kislyak and Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov into the Oval Office last week during a White House visit. Trump closed the meeting to the American press — even for the traditional photo-op — but then allowed a photographer from the official Russian state media organization, TASS, into the room to take pictures. In fact, pictures of the meeting seen in American newspaper or on TV networks the next day were all taken by the Russian photographer.

There are so many things wrong with this incident that it is difficult to know where to start.


So let's start with why Trump welcomed this photographer from the Russian press into the Oval Office while excluding photographers from the American press? What does this communicate about Trump's view of a free press vs. a state-controlled press? What did this communicate to the Russian leaders visiting the Oval Office? Trump certainly must be aware that some Russian journalists in Russia have been killed trying to provide independent coverage of the Russian government. One would think that the American president would want to reinforce the concept of a free press over a state-controlled press.

Does Trump even care to promote the advantages of a free press to Russia and the rest of the world? Is he jealous that the Russian people only read and see what Russian leaders want them to read and see? This situation in the Oval Office, plus Trump's comments about the free American press — "The press is the enemy" — should startle all Americans, especially those who claim to be advocates of freedom and defenders of our constitution.

A longtime White House correspondent, Andrea Mitchell, talked about the "unprecedented" situation where the U.S. media became dependent on Russian-controlled media for pictures of a presidential meeting in the Oval Office. Sad.

Second, why in the world is Trump meeting with these Russian leaders at all? American intelligence agencies have stated that Russia hacked into both presidential candidates emails last year and then selectively released emails from the Clinton campaign to disrupt and influence the presidential election. The very people Trump met with at the White House are the folks his campaign staff had secret meetings and phone calls with, and who are under investigation by Congress and the FBI. Why is Trump pictured smiling with these people who tried to undermine our American democracy?

Where is his loyalty to America?

Third, former U.S. intelligence officials were questioning why the White House would risk a security breach by letting a Russian photographer into the Oval Office. For example, former deputy CIA director David Cohen responded, "No it was not" when asked if it was a good idea to allow a Russian photographer into the Oval Office. Other former intelligence officials noted that the photographer works for the Russian government and had the opportunity to bring listening devices into the Oval Office that would not be detectable to normal screening procedures for White House visitors.

To emphasize how informally the TASS photographer was allowed into the Oval Office (while the American press was kept out), the White House expressed surprise when told that he worked for TASS. The White House said that they thought that he was just an aide to the Russian Prime Minister taking pictures. A White House statement read, "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." Then, after the Russians released the photographs, the White House said that they were "tricked." A more accurate assessment might be that the White House, in trying to diss the American free press, allowed themselves to be used by the Russian government for their own propaganda purposes. Incompetence is one word that comes to mind.

To this date, and regardless of the overwhelming evidence, Russia continues to deny that they hacked into emails related to American candidates for president, as well as French and other European candidates. Lavrov stated during his White House visit that "no evidence exists linking Russia to hacked Democratic Party emails released during last year's election campaign."

No wonder Trump is so enthralled with the Russians. They, too, think that they can say anything and get away with it, regardless of the evidence. And, in fact, in Russia, they can. Unfortunately for Trump, however, he is President of the United States where free speech and a free press are protected by our Constitution. These are freedoms that the Russian people can only dream about and that Americans must continue to protect, regardless of who sits in the Oval Office.

Tom Zirpoli writes from Westminster. He is the coordinator of the human services management graduate program at McDaniel College. His column appears Wednesdays. Email him at tzirpoli@mcdaniel.edu.