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White House Takes Flak for Letting Russian State Media Into Oval Office

Image: President Donald Trump meets with Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavro
President Donald Trump meets with Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov, left, next to Russian Ambassador to the U.S. Sergei Kislyak at the White House in Washington on May 10, 2017. Trump on Wednesday welcomed Vladimir Putin's top diplomat to the White House for Trump's highest level face-to-face contact with a Russian government official since he took office in January. Russian Foreign Ministry Photo / AP

The White House was facing criticism Thursday for a possible security breach after it allowed a Russian news service photographer into the Oval Office to snap photos of President Donald Trump and a pair of top Russian officials.

While the White House downplayed the threat, a senior administration official acknowledged to the Associated Press that the White House had been misled about the role of the Russian photographer, who was actually employed by a state-run news agency. The official requested anonymity to discuss matters of security.

The photographer — who on Wednesday stood feet from Trump as he talked with Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov and Russian Ambassador Sergey Kislyak — had told the White House that he was Lavrov's official photographer, the administration official said.

But he did not say that he also works for Tass, a Russian state-run news agency.

Tass photographer Alexandr Scherbak claimed on Facebook Thursday that he covered the meeting as part of the Russian Foreign Ministry press pool.

White House officials were apparently surprised when photos depicting an apparently jovial moment between Trump and the two Russian officials appeared online a short time after Wednesday's meeting, according to the official. There had been no plans to immediately broadcast images from the meeting, the official said.

Image: President Donald Trump shakes hands with Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov
President Donald Trump shakes hands with Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov in the White House on May 10, 2017. Russian Foreign Ministry Photo / AP

The chummy photos left some observers agog, particularly coming a day after the president fired FBI Director James Comey, who had been running the investigation into whether the Trump campaign coordinated with Russian officials.

The American media, however, never caught a glimpse of either Russian inside the White House. When the press pool was finally allowed into the Oval Office at the meeting's conclusion, both Lavrov and Kislyak were gone and, in a surprise, former Secretary of State Henry Kissinger was with Trump instead.

The White House posted photos online of the meeting a full day later, but they did not include any images of Lavrov. And Kislyak was not mentioned in the official White House readout of the meeting.

The White House defended the decision not to allow any independent press into the meeting. "We had an official photographer in the room, as did they," spokeswoman Sarah Huckabee Sanders said Thursday.

Sanders added that it was "proper protocol" to close a meeting to the press when Trump is meeting with a foreign official who is not a head of state. President Barack Obama's staff frequently adopted a similar policy. Ambassadors often accompany visiting dignitaries to the White House.

Image: President Donald Trump meets with Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov
President Donald Trump meets with Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov, second left, at the White House on May 10, 2017. Fourth from right is Russian Ambassador to the U.S. Sergei Kislyak. Russian Foreign Ministry Photo / AP

Administration officials dismissed any security concerns, saying that Lavrov's entourage went through the typical visitor screening process and that the White House is routinely swept for listening devices. But security experts said that the risk was real, if remote.

"The thing to bear in mind is that Tass is not some independent news organization," David Cohen, former deputy director of the Central Intelligence Agency, told NBC News' Andrea Mitchell on Thursday. "Tass is an instrument of the Russian state and whoever was behind the equipment is an employee of the Russian government."

"I hope that the folks in the Oval Office were practicing good security hygiene, and were keeping an eye on what was going on," Cohen added.