Less than 24 hours after he fired James Comey, director of the FBI, the primary investigative agency in the United States, President Donald Trump appeared in the above photo. This masterpiece of propaganda arrived from a Russian source. The man on the left, slightly and rigidly inclined, with his hands almost behind his back–a gesture that no doubt shows deference–is Russian Foreign Minister, Sergey Lavrov. Despite his awkward body language, the Minister is laughing in response to his host’s joking gesture, pointing in good humor to the man on the right, the Russian Ambassador to Washington Sergey Kislyak. The President’s face is swollen, showing signs of a sleepless night, and could easily be confused with the ripped face of the one-time Russian president, Boris Yeltsin, known for his passionate drinking. It’s a strange scene, absurd even, considering that what we detect from the photo is intimacy, shared between accomplices.
Ambassador Sergey Kislyak was the immediate cause for the investigation of Trump’s national security advisor, Michael Flynn, who was caught in several bold lies about the nature and content of his communications with the Russian. After the Washington Post published the investigation’s leaks about the general’s wrong doings, Trump, only 24 days after he appointed Flynn to the job, was forced to fire him. Flynn was caught in the investigators net when contacted Kislyak, who is under constant surveillance by American spy agencies. Consequently, we may expect that more members of the Trump campaign will meet a similar fate if additional tapes are investigated. Did Kislyak, who spent so many years building his American network socializing, spending lavishly, plan this last act to sink Trump’s battleship to the bottom of the ocean? In the above photo, the chubby ambassador does not look at Trump, but is laughingly observing his boss, Minister Lavrov. The message is clear: the circle is closed and, because we are missing the sound bites, we are forced to speculate.
The photos of this bizarre meeting could be easily interpreted as some kind of celebration. They came from Russia, from the state-run wire service, TASS. They are signed by Alexander Shcherbak, the official photographer of the Russian delegation. No mics, no photos, no notes from the American side; the troika is mute, they insist, in keeping the media away. The American president had a protocol photographer in the room, but she did not publish any photos. She could not, since the role of protocol photographer is to take portraits of the American executive whenever he meets important foreign dignitaries. The pictures, then, become part of a file that weaves through the archives, and is sometimes even made classified. Those photographers are not journalists, they are not observers on behalf of the public, they are the delegation of the government, sent to record a history sometimes obscured from view of the people. The real media did not have access to this meeting; Trump locked them out to have a private party with the Russians. So we may never know who was in the room on the Russian side.
When it comes to the Russian government, they do not make the same distinction. In Russia, and even China, the media has a different role. They are part of the establishment; they must support and be a mouthpiece of the government. If not, they get no access to the information, to the story. But if they do get information and they use it inform the public in contradiction to the government’s intentions, they face punishment and, as we know, some of them even get killed. Shcherbak was allowed into the Oval Office because the Kremlin wanted him there, and Lavrov (or somebody in his name) told the photographer how to take the photos, how to tell the story the way Moscow wanted it told. The narrative implies intimacy and friendship between Russian and American leaders. “The man in White House is our man,” narrates the TASS photo story. Besides the troika, the photos were taken in a room that looks like a part of the Kremlin, not in the Oval Office. The predominant color in it is Kremlin white, the books on the shelves behind the three stooges could be the collective works of Tolstoy, Lenin….Who can tell? It is a setup that makes Trump look like even more of a Russian familiar.
The American president would die to have this kind of power over the media. He has tried to obtain it by rewarding loyalty in the press room, by excluding certain outlets from crucial briefings, by insisting on delegitimizing anyone or any organization critical of him. In this case–amidst the melee of investigations into Russian campaign involvement, the shambolic firing of Comey, and escalating evidence of either conspiracy or stupidity in the executive–Trump thought it wise to order the press again away, and not to meddle in his affairs with the Russians.
Here’s the problem: Trump is evidently not aware what kind of country he is supposed to be running. He does not know America. He thinks it is a big Trump Tower, his gilded playground. As such he is not aware that this abused exclusivity of White House photo-ops is a demonstration of Russian meddling in American affairs. It is proof of how Russians are playing, and effectively, this game with the West, how shallow and profound they can penetrate its democratic systems, how meticulously they are prepared to operate to weaken their adversaries. Let me stop here by saying that a serious intelligence investigation into this short episode of Trump’s White House would be enough to stop this president from colluding with the Russians.
Lavrov’s short stop in Washington demonstrates that we were right to say Trump’s bombing of Syria was a mise en scenè that agreed with Moscow, that all the tensions between Russia and America in Trump’s era are well-played psychodramas, played on the world’s stage. It is true that the war Trump declared on the intelligence community, even before he entered the White House, is working against him. Firing the director of the FBI is the tipping point; is it time to start calling this president a dead man walking? I do not see how can he reverse things in his favor. America is scared of this man, and worried that his reckless egocentrism will bring this land and the world to the brink of a bigger disaster than it has ever seen. We can only ask, at what cost?