On the surface it seemed like the type of story that Russia’s state media would jump at the chance to report. Within a few months of taking office, President Donald Trump had not only granted Moscow’s top diplomat a private audience on May 10 in the Oval Office, he had also done his Russian guests the honor of giving them highly classified information, according intelligence officials quoted in the Washington Post and other major news outlets this week.
With the proper Russian spin, this news might have served as evidence that Trump was serious about getting along with the Kremlin – a narrative that Kremlin propaganda has been pushing since well before Election Day. But rather than gloating over the latest sign of a U.S.-Russian détente, the Russian media treated the story like a dud – either ignoring it, downplaying it or following Trump’s lead in denying the Post’s version of events.
On the prime-time broadcast of Vesti, the Russian government’s main news channel, the report about Trump’s alleged intelligence breach came toward the end of the bulletin, following segments about new rules for electronic airline tickets and new weapons for the Russian military. When the anchor finally announced the item on the White House, he was dismissive: “Trump shared intelligence information with Russia, and he had every right to do it. Why have they thought up another scandal in Washington?”
On the network’s website, a short write-up of the story played down the reliability of the Post’s reporting, saying that it was based on “an unnamed source” even though the paper had in fact quoted a number of current and former U.S. officials. Various other outlets, including the New York Times and Reuters, have since corroborated the story – a fact that also went unmentioned in the Russian coverage.
What did get the Russian media’s attention was the colorful response to the scandal that Maria Zakharova, the chief spokesman for the Russian Foreign Ministry, posted on Tuesday on her Facebook page: “Guys, have you been reading American newspapers again? Don’t read them. You can use them in various ways, but reading them is not only bad for you lately, it’s also dangerous.”
The rant sounded a lot like one of Trump’s outbursts against the American press. And over the last few months, any criticism of Trump or his Administration has tended to illicit the same response from Russia’s state-controlled media, which have made a habit of depicting the world as Trump would like to see it.
One exception to that rule came earlier this month – after that same meeting in the Oval Office between Trump and Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov. While the White House refused to allow any American journalists into the room for that encounter, Lavrov brought along a photographer whose pictures were posted the same day on a Russian state-run news agency. It seems the Russian side could not resist the chance to advertise their budding friendship with the U.S. President.
Apart from angering the White House press corps, the publication of those photos also reportedly annoyed officials in the Trump Administration, who were not aware that Russia planned to post the photos that same day. “They tricked us,” one White House official told CNN. “That’s the problem with the Russians – they lie.”
But this week, after the latest scandal over Trump’s ties to Moscow broke, the Russian media apparatus seemed keen to make amends. The Vesti report even went so far as to blame Trump’s electoral rival for orchestrating all the outrage. “The latest spy story is inseparable from the political context of mudslinging against Donald Trump,” the reporter told his millions of Russian viewers during the Tuesday evening bulletin. “Hillary Clinton may have been defeated but, it turns out, she isn’t broken yet.” Even Trump couldn’t have spun it better.