Just before a U.S. president meets with a foreign leader, at home or abroad, reporters and photographers from both countries are trotted in for a few minutes for what’s called a “pool spray,” to ask questions and snap a few pictures. The kabuki theater usually goes off without a hitch — except when the Russians are involved.
President Joe Biden and Russian President Vladimir Putin met Wednesday for their first face-to-face tête-à-tête at the Villa La Grange, an 18th-century mansion located in a park in Geneva. But things melted down just before the meeting, as the press pool was set to go in for a quick spray.
“There was chaos at the start of this bilateral meeting,” said Fox News’ John Roberts, a longtime White House reporter. “We’re supposed to have what’s called a pool spray where press from both the United States and Russia come in what’s supposed to be an orderly fashion and listen to the two leaders as they begin their bilateral meeting.”
“But there was a lot of pushing and shoving that was going on, only half of the American pool got in. Our camera got in, but the audio didn’t, which is why you really couldn’t hear the two of them talk. And then when the American press started, as tradition holds, shouting questions at the two leaders, Russian security got involved and started pushing everybody out of the room, even grabbing on to the clothing of some of the Americans as they tried to clear them out,” Roberts said.
“It’s a grand tradition for the [White House press] wranglers, as they’re called, to say, ‘Thank you press, get out, it’s time to get out,’ but the United States Secret Service never puts a hand on the American press, unless of course they were to present some sort of a threat. But for the Russian security forces to grab the American press and try to shove them out of the room, that’s going beyond the line. But I will say, these things are always crazy,” said Roberts.
Another reporter covering the scrum said much the same thing.
“We are not being allowed in because everyone is pushing and shoving,” Anita Kumar, a reporter for Politico, wrote in a pool report. “Authorities have threatened to keep us out.”
In a later pool report, Kumar wrote: “There’s an extremely chaotic scene at the door. Both pools being denied access. At 1:39 pm, part of the pool was ushered in but we were pushed and shoved by security officials and Russian media. Poolers tripped over cords.”
She offered more detail in another report, one in which she put some of the blame on the U.S. press corps.
“The shoving match began at a side entrance immediately as the two presidents entered the villa from the front door. Journalists from both countries rushed to enter the building but were stopped by U.S. and Russian security and government officials. The pool was repeatedly told to line up separately and in single file but neither side did. Instead, the journalists pushed and shoved trying to enter the building,” Kumar wrote.
“There was screaming and yelling as a Swiss official kept asking everyone to be quiet. Poolers was told by the U.S. and Russia officials several times that they would not be allowed inside unless everyone was orderly. That never happened. White House officials repeatedly tried to get the U.S. pool inside, saying that the U.S. and Russia had agreed on the numbers. Meanwhile, we learned while standing there that the leaders had started speaking without media inside the room. Finally at 1:39 pm, nine of the 13-member U.S. pool got into the room,” Kumar wrote.