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A New White House Spokeswoman, An Old Photo, And A Message About Russian Propaganda

Jen Psaki is to become the White House spokeswoman.
Jen Psaki is to become the White House spokeswoman.

Six years ago, the woman who was the face of the U.S. State Department was subjected to constant trolling on the Russian-language Internet, not to mention derision from the state-controlled satellite channel that used to be known as Russia Today.

Fast forward to December 2020, seven weeks before Jen Psaki is to become the White House spokeswoman when Joe Biden is formally inaugurated as president on January 20, 2021.

A tweet Psaki posted on December 2 appears to be an early marker about how she intends to conduct the job, and how the Biden administration may treat what it considers propaganda from the Kremlin -- as well as those it thinks are furthering it.

And a brouhaha that preceded the tweet, and may have prompted it, added a twist as Psaki prepares for a second round of interactions with Moscow that seems likely to be tense at best.

“For anyone who hasn't been the target of Russian propaganda,” Psaki wrote, “the purpose is to discredit powerful messengers and to spread misinformation to confuse the public. Anyone who repeats it is (unwitting or not) simply a puppet of the propaganda machine.”

The tweet hints at her own experience as a target of trolls. And she referred to two other figures, also from the administration of Barack Obama, who faced mocking and more from Russian officials and Kremlin-linked media. One was former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, who charged that Russian propaganda undermined her 2016 presidential bid.

The other was Michael McFaul, who served as U.S. ambassador to Moscow in 2012-14, arriving as then-Prime Minister Vladimir Putin was preparing to return to the presidency.

Aside from references to Clinton and McFaul, Psaki did not mention any specific alleged Russian disinformation in the tweet or provide any other explanation as to what prompted it.

A question sent by e-mail to the Biden transition team was not immediately answered.

However, it came about a day after a tweet was posted by a spokesman for U.S. President Donald Trump that included a photograph that subsequently circulated in social media and some media outlets.

'Soldiers Of The Information War'

The photo, taken in Paris in January 2014, showed Psaki standing, smiling with her then-boss, Secretary of State John Kerry, alongside Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov and ministry spokeswoman Maria Zakharova, Psaki’s counterpart at the time.

The diplomats were in the French capital for talks over the ongoing war in Syria.

Taken at a time when U.S.-Russian relations were less strained, the photo, which is also published on at least one State Department social-media channel, shows Psaki wearing a “ushanka” -- a traditional fur hat with ear flaps.

The hat, a gift from Lavrov, is pink, which is relatively unusual for Russian fur hats, and includes a pin appearing to show the Soviet red star and hammer-and-sickle, which are common souvenir trinkets that are often sold to tourists visiting Moscow.

The tweet and the photograph circulated on social media and were the focus of news stories, including by Fox News, which implied that by wearing the hat and a hammer-and-sickle pin, Psaki was endorsing the repressive policies of the Soviet Union.

The photo bouncing around Twitter and Facebook drew a “fact check” from the newspaper USA Today, which recalled that the hat was a gift to Psaki from the Russian delegation in Paris and that it was given in response to a gift that Kerry presented to Lavrov: "two sizable Idaho potatoes."

There is no indication that the hat was intended to be a nefarious present from the Russian delegation.

At the time of the meeting, the Russian Foreign Ministry posted its own photograph of a smiling Psaki wearing the fur hat, alongside Kerry and Lavrov, who was quoted as responding to Kerry’s gift by calling the potatoes “impressive.”

Nor is there any indication the photo was hidden away.

Zakharova herself reposted the photo to her own Facebook page in January 2018, with the caption: "A masterpiece in every sense of the word. Soldiers of the information war.”

John Kerry gifting Sergei Lavrov potatoes.
John Kerry gifting Sergei Lavrov potatoes.

It’s unclear exactly to what, or to whom, Zakharova is referring.

'Faux Scandal'?

Two months after the Paris meeting, Russia seized Crimea, sending in troops and staging a referendum considered illegitimate by the majority of countries.

The takeover and the Russian role in the war that erupted in eastern Ukraine weeks later sent U.S-Russian relations into a tailspin. Ties are expected to remain tense under the Biden administration, which has signaled a tough approach toward Moscow.

As State Department spokeswoman in 2013-15, Psaki was often the point person for explaining U.S. policy toward Russia and Ukraine.

Her regular press briefings, meanwhile, drew scorn from some Russian Internet users, particularly for her verbal skirmishes with Russia Today, the Russian channel now known as RT.

Kremlin-friendly news outlets and Internet users mocked and amplified minor gaffes that to many seemed unremarkable. RT compiled a slideshow of missteps that were otherwise inconsequential.

Psaki’s December 2 tweet suggested that McFaul and Clinton were also frequent targets of trolling.

As ambassador to Moscow, McFaul met with hostility from the start and was the focus of harassment online and sometimes in the street.

He was also an architect of Obama’s Russia policy -- an attempted “reset” that descended into acrimony amid sources of discord such as the Russian seizure of Crimea.

Clinton, meanwhile, was accused by Putin of fomenting the anti-government protests that erupted in Russia late in 2011.

Five years later, U.S. intelligence agencies said the Kremlin conducted a campaign of interference in the 2016 U.S. presidential election, seeking in part to undermine her candidacy and bolster Trump’s, as well as undermine confidence in U.S. democracy.

McFaul defended Psaki in a tweet later on December 2, writing that “Russian media controlled by or friendly to Putin lambasted [Psaki] with outrageous and disgusting disinformation because she told the truth about Russia's annexation of Crimea.”

And he appeared to refer to the controversy over Psaki wearing the pink Russian fur hat.

“Stop with this faux scandal,” he wrote.

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    Mike Eckel

    Mike Eckel is a senior correspondent reporting on political and economic developments in Russia, Ukraine, and around the former Soviet Union, as well as news involving cybercrime and espionage. He's reported on the ground on Russia's invasion of Ukraine, the wars in Chechnya and Georgia, and the 2004 Beslan hostage crisis, as well as the annexation of Crimea in 2014.