Just hours after a controversial meeting and corresponding press conference, one former Obama White House employee threw some serious shade at the high-profile summit. Sharing a photo from his time as a White House photographer under President Obama, Pete Souza eviscerated Trump's Putin meeting by using the subtle art of comparison — and social media.
The photo Souza shared was simple. It featured then-president Obama, standing just to the left of Russian President Vladimir Putin. While it's not clear exactly which meeting the photo was taken at, the dynamic at play in the snapshot is anything but calm. Instead, Obama is seen leaning over Putin, with one arm out to the side, his mouth open as if mid-sentence. Putin, in turn, is grimacing, and looking down.
"Here’s how you’re supposed to deal with the Russian president," Souza captioned the photo on Instagram. On Twitter, where he shared the same photo, he wrote simply, "Once upon a time."
By all appearances, the photo suggested a power dynamic wherein the American president is dominating the relationship, even if only momentarily. It stood in stark contrast to the way Trump's press conference was received following his Monday meeting with the Russian leader. Both Republicans and Democrats levied criticism against Trump for the way he characterized their discussion.
Trump received criticism, above all else, for going easy on Putin, and for neglecting to hold Russia accountable for attempting to meddle in the U.S. election, just days after 12 Russian agents were indicted as part of the Mueller investigation.
When asked whether he held Russia responsible for anything in particular, Trump declined to hold the country exclusively responsible for anything. Instead, he suggested the U.S. was also culpable. "I hold both countries responsible," he said at the press conference. "I think that the United States has been foolish. I think we’ve all been foolish. We should have had this dialogue a long time ago — long time, frankly, before I got to office, and I think we’re all to blame."
Trump also faced backlash for the way that he described the U.S. intelligence community, as well as for veering into the nitty gritty details surrounding his 2016 presidential election victory.
"They said they think it’s Russia. I have President Putin, he just said it’s not Russia," Trump said of Russian interference in the 2016 election. "I will say this. I don’t see any reason why it would be, but I really do want to see the server."
Some top Republicans issued swift responses to Trump's remarks.
"Today’s press conference in Helsinki was one of the most disgraceful performances by an American president in memory," Republican Sen. John McCain said in a statement. He continued, "The damage inflicted by President Trump’s naiveté, egotism, false equivalence, and sympathy for autocrats is difficult to calculate. But it is clear that the summit in Helsinki was a tragic mistake."
McCain was not the only high profile party figure to express distress, either.
"There is no question that Russia interfered in our election and continues attempts to undermine democracy here and around the world," Paul Ryan said, according to ABC. He continued:
The president must appreciate that Russia is not our ally. There is no moral equivalence between the United States and Russia, which remains hostile to our most basic values and ideals. The United States must be focused on holding Russia accountable and putting an end to its vile attacks on democracy.
Trump chimed into the conversation via Tweet. "As I said today and many times before, 'I have GREAT confidence in MY intelligence people,'" he wrote. "However, I also recognize that in order to build a brighter future, we cannot exclusively focus on the past – as the world’s two largest nuclear powers, we must get along!"
All of this is to say is that Souza's throwback garnered a lot of attention, especially on a day where the current president received such an unusually large amount of criticism from his own political party. Like others, it seems that Souza found himself immediately reflecting on a time where U.S.-Russian relations were a bit different.