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Russian meddling? Seeing is believing

St. Louis Post-Dispatch (TNS) Published: May 15, 2017 4:00 AM

If Americans wanted to view photos of Wednesday's meeting between President Donald Trump, Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov and Russian Ambassador Sergey Kislyak, they had only one source to turn to: the Russian government. The Oval Office meeting reportedly was arranged at Russian President Vladimir Putin's request, and Trump was all too eager to oblige.

It seems the White House press office was so worried about potentially bad optics, American journalists were banned from the usual photo op. Officials did allow a Russian government photographer in, apparently unaware that he would transmit the photos around the world, thus giving Putin the images he needed of his friend in the Oval Office.

Trump's beaming smile next to Kislyak came in sharp contrast to the stony-faced photo that emerged in March when Trump met with German Chancellor Angela Merkel and refused to shake her hand.

Bad optics, indeed. Trump had fired FBI Director James Comey only the day before amid an investigation into Russian meddling in the Nov. 8 presidential election. Trump was so concerned about optics that, in his letter firing Comey, he went to pains to assert without substantiation that the FBI director had told him on three occasions that he personally was not under investigation.

The focal point of all this intrigue is Kislyak. It was during a post-election meeting between Kislyak and Michael Flynn, who would become Trump's national security adviser, that the two discussed possible lifting of sanctions imposed by President Barack Obama to punish Russia for election meddling.

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Flynn later lied to Vice President Mike Pence about the substance of that meeting. Kislyak, whose communications and movements had been under U.S. intelligence surveillance, knew that Flynn had lied. It was Flynn's susceptibility to blackmail that led then-Acting Attorney General Sally Yates to warn the White House in January about the security risk Flynn posed. Trump fired Yates for different reasons, but kept Flynn on for weeks afterward.

Kislyak also hosted popular gatherings at a Russian government estate at Pioneer Point, Md., which Obama ordered closed as part of the sanctions, listing it as a Russian spy compound. The implication was that Kislyak gave cover to spies and might have been one himself.

The last place this man should have been was in the Oval Office beside Trump. But there he was, at Putin's request.

In an interview with NBC News Thursday, Trump indicated that Comey's job hung in the balance when the FBI director offered his three alleged assurances about the president not being under investigation. The link Trump appeared to draw between the investigation and Comey's continued employment was damning.

The president could soon find himself fighting to keep his own job as congressional and Justice Department investigations deepen. For Trump, the optics were as bad as his judgment.

-- St. Louis Post-Dispatch


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