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(U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo on stage during the 2020 Munich Security Conference February 15, 2020 in Munich, Germany. Photo by Johannes Simon via Getty Images.)
The U.S. Secretary of State had a meeting on Friday that he was clearly attempting to keep under the radar from the American public. Pompeo met with Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov during the Munich Security Conference in Lavrov's own dedicated meeting room at the Hotel Bayerischer Hof. Although the hotel is hosting the annual conference of politicians, policymakers and security experts, the attempt to conceal the meeting in a private break-out room is concerning, and the fact that none of the American press was notified or allowed to cover the event should sound the alarm.
According to Politico, Russian journalists who were traveling with Lavrov were made aware of the meeting in advance and were given permission to write about it afterward, meaning Russia was able and allowed to take full advantage of the opportunity to promote the event in the Russian press. On the American flip-side, the State Department made no announcement whatsoever of the meeting and would only describe the event as a “pull-aside,” refusing to give any further details. An official was willing to deny that the State Department asked Russia not to publicize the meeting and also confirmed that the department did not normally issue readouts of "pull asides."
(Photo of U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov (in doorway) in a hallway of the Hotel Bayerischer Hof during the Munich Security Conference during the time when they had their secret meeting via Zakharova Facebook post.)
A senior administration official would only confirm that Pompeo had met with Masrour Barzani, prime minister of the Kurdistan region of Iraq. The official went on to say that that U.S. officials had also met with Israeli counterparts as well as with a senior EU foreign affairs official, Helga Schmid. There was no information disclosed about Pompeo’s meeting with Lavrov during this or any other briefing, not even to say that it was a chance casual meeting as previously disclosed by a state department official. Given that both men met in a private room that Lavrov used to conduct private meetings, the argument that they just crossed paths in the hall and spoke a few words is pretty far-fetched.
There was no apparent reason why the State Department chose to withhold details of the meeting between Pompeo and his Russian counterpart in advance. According to Politico, a Russian journalist traveling with Lavrov said it was actually the U.S. side that had requested that there be no press conference or joint statements. The source also confirmed that photographers were forbidden from taking a photograph of the two diplomats shaking hands.
(Facebook post of Maria Zakharova, spokeswoman for the Russian Foreign Ministry.)
The move on the part of the State Department to withhold meeting details was directly contrasted by how the Russians were able to document the event. Maria Zakharova, spokeswoman for Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov, not only confirmed in a Facebook post that the meeting took place. She also included a photo of Pompeo and Lavrov standing in a hallway of the Hotel Bayerischer Hof.
This is hardly the first time the State Department has refused access to the American press. In January, NPR diplomatic correspondent Michele Kelemen was denied a seat aboard Pompeo’s plane during his trip that included a visit to Ukraine. This was retaliation for Pompeo’s contentious interview with another NPR journalist, Marie Louise Kelly. In March of 2019, the State Department also barred reporters from non-religious outlets from covering a briefing call about international religious freedom with Secretary of State Pompeo and refused to release a list of people who participated in the event or even a transcript of what Pompeo said.
The number of times the State Department has kept Pompeo’s schedule and meetings a secret are numerous. This latest meeting makes it apparent that Pompeo can be used to meet with, and relay any information the Trump administration deems necessary to Russian President Vladimir Putin through a myriad of Russian officials, such as Lavrov. Given Trump’s recent impeachment for using a foreign power to help gain political advantage and influence the 2020 election, it’s clear that the channels for a repeat of 2016 are wide open and fully functioning.
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Amee Vanderpool writes the “Shero” Newsletter and is an attorney, contributor to Playboy Magazine and analyst for BBC radio. She can be reached at email@example.com or follow her on Twitter @girlsreallyrule.