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Trump Bars U.S. Reporters From Meeting With Russian Officials


A Russian news photographer had his pictures splashed on the front pages of American newspapers today. That's because he was the only member of the press allowed to capture the moment Donald Trump met with top Russian diplomats yesterday. White House Spokeswoman Sarah Huckabee Sanders was asked this afternoon why U.S. reporters were kept out of the photo op. She said having journalists in the room isn't necessary when the president is meeting lower-level officials.


SARAH HUCKABEE SANDERS: Not always, particularly - sometimes the protocol - when it is not the head of state and prior to the president meeting with the head of state, that wouldn't always take place. But again, proper protocol was followed in this procedure.

SIEGEL: NPR's State Department correspondent Michele Kelemen was covering the story for us. And Michele, how did you get the news of what happened in the Oval Office?

MICHELE KELEMEN, BYLINE: Well, like my other colleagues, I headed over to the Russian Embassy where Sergey Lavrov, the foreign minister, gave a pretty thorough news conference after his meeting with Trump. You know, the Russians, Robert, were obviously very eager to highlight this trip. Lavrov hasn't come here for years. He usually meets the secretary of state at the U.N. in New York, in Geneva, Vienna, other places. But this time, he was there in the Oval Office, and Moscow clearly wanted those images out there.

SIEGEL: Well, how usual or unusual is it for you to be only hearing about a meeting between, in this case, the Russian foreign minister and the president from the Russian side?

KELEMEN: Very unusual. I mean the White House and the State Department did put out written statements and answered some questions on background - very little. But usually in this sort of case, you would get a joint news conference between Lavrov and Secretary of State Rex Tillerson. When Tillerson went to Moscow and met with Vladimir Putin, for instance, they gave a joint news conference there.

SIEGEL: Some people are saying that the Russian photographer's presence represented a security breach. What does he have to say about that?

KELEMEN: Well, he called that whole line of argument nonsense. His name is Alexander Shcherbak. He's with the Russian news agency TASS and was there as kind of the official government photographer. Though, you know, TASS is a Russian government news agency. He wrote a message to his U.S. colleagues on Facebook today saying that he went through the usual screenings. He was there along with a white house official photographer and was only there to take pictures at the top of the meeting, not during the meeting. And he said he's been covering the Russian foreign ministry for 15 years, traveling with the foreign minister to many locations.

SIEGEL: I mean so he's both - in Russian terms, he says he's a journalist working for a news agency. The news agency is owned by the government. So was he the official state photographer for the foreign minister, or was he a Russian journalist traveling with the foreign minister?

KELEMEN: Well, he says he was a Russian journalist traveling as he always does. But the White House clearly thought he was the official Russian photographer. That's all they let into the room, the White House photographer and what they thought was the official Russian photographer.

SIEGEL: That's NPR's Michele Kelemen at the State Department. Thanks, Michel.

KELEMEN: Thank you, Robert. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Michele Kelemen has been with NPR for two decades, starting as NPR's Moscow bureau chief and now covering the State Department and Washington's diplomatic corps. Her reports can be heard on all NPR News programs, including Morning Edition and All Things Considered.