The photo is confounding.
There is President Donald Trump in the Oval Office, smiling and shaking hands with Russian Ambassador Sergey Kislyak.
The image is haunting.
Trump’s smile is one of pure delight, so broad his teeth are bared. His enthusiasm borders on giddiness.
Kislyak’s smile is sly, satisfied. It’s more reserved, a mission-accomplished kind of grin. His teeth are hidden.
They stand shoulder to shoulder, hand clasped in hand, cloaked in their own histories and those of their respective countries, their joint pose reflecting either the disquieting possibility that nothing is as it seems or the awful reality that everything is exactly as it seems.
Kislyak is one of Russia’s top spies, an effective recruiter of other spies, according to U.S. intelligence officials. A spymaster, and avatar for Russian President Vladimir Putin.
Trump is beset by investigations into whether anyone in his campaign was involved in Russia’s meddling in the 2016 election.
Kislyak is the same guy Attorney General Jeff Sessions met twice last year, and it was Sessions’ failure to divulge that forced him to say he would recuse himself from the FBI’s probe into Russia’s actions. Kislyak is the same guy whose conversations with soon-to-be National Security Adviser Michael Flynn led ultimately to Flynn’s resignation.
But there they are, Kislyak and Trump, gripping and grinning.
How to read those smiles?
Are they simply a greeting between old friends? Kislyak had a front-row seat at an invitation-only foreign policy speech Trump made last year, mingled with Trump at a reception beforehand, went to Trump’s inauguration, and attended Trump’s speech to Congress.
Are they expressions of solidarity? Implicit recognition of what Trump and Kislyak’s boss have in common? A disdain for the media, a reflexive distaste for dissent, a hunger for loyalty from associates, the belief that the intelligence community should do their bidding, the dishonesty each employs as stock-in-trade, the conviction that nothing is more important than strength?
Are they yukking it up because each is working hard to undermine fundamental American institutions like its electoral process, its judiciary and its media?
Is Trump smiling because he knows he’s been sending out all the president’s men and women to mislead on his behalf, whether they did so knowingly or unwittingly, regarding his firing of FBI director James Comey a day earlier? The same Comey who was leading the deepening Russian investigation? The same Comey whose dismissal was mocked, shortly before the photo was taken, by Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov, who was captured in other Oval Office photos laughing with Trump and Kislyak?
Where was that smile when Trump met with German Chancellor Angela Merkel and British Prime Minister Theresa May, the leaders of two of our nation’s most trusted allies? Why didn’t he show the same warmth toward them?
Look at the two Russians, in particular. Are Kislyak and Lavrov smiling because they know, as a White House official would say later, that “they tricked us” by posting the photos when the White House did not think they would, making official what was supposed to be the secret presence of Kislyak?
Are they chuckling in anticipation of that same official’s exasperation that “that’s the problem with the Russians — they lie”?
Are they smiling because they turned Trump into a P.R. man for Russia, the American president as Putin propaganda?
Michael Dobie is a member of Newsday’s editorial board.