This is a tweet from the president of the United States:
If that photo looks familiar to you, it might be because you stumbled across it at one of many pro-Trump media outlets over the past week. The photo was emblematic of how the Trump-supporting Internet reacted to the news that Attorney General Jeff Sessions met twice with the Russian ambassador during the campaign, a fact that he failed to disclose during the Senate confirmation hearings for the job he now has.
The idea is: Liberals are mad about any Trump administration connection to Russia, so why aren’t they mad about this photograph, which shows a liberal lawmaker having a friendly doughnut with none other than Russian President Vladimir Putin? As Trump’s tweet makes pretty clear, the photo is circulating as a way to point out perceived hypocrisy on the left. If there’s nothing wrong with the photo of Sen. Charles E. Schumer (D-N.Y.), then how can you say Sessions did anything bad? Or so the argument goes.
Although there are many contextual differences to these two scenarios, and the news about Sessions’s undisclosed meetings resulted in the attorney general announcing that he was going to recuse himself from any investigations into the 2016 presidential campaign, the meme has been very popular on the Trump-supporting side of the Internet. These days, one of the ultimate signs of a right-wing meme’s success is whether it gets picked up by the president himself.
So with that in mind, let’s examine how this photograph ended up getting to Trump.
Sept. 26, 2003, New York City: The doughnut meeting happened in September 2003, at a Lukoil gas station on the West Side of Manhattan. Lukoil is a Russian company, which is why Putin would want to visit one of its locations.
Newsday, a Long Island-based publication, described the stop as one of many for the Russian president that day, which began with remarks at the New York Stock Exchange. Putin met Schumer at the gas station, and the New York senator “steered him toward the doughnuts.” Putin, they wrote, “devoured a glazed Krispy Kreme with delight.” (A neighborhood blog posted some other details from the meeting, in case you are interested.)
The two are photographed together. One of the photos, of Schumer and Putin eating doughnuts, is taken by a photographer hired by Lukoil and handed out to the media.
Putin’s next stop after the doughnut break was Camp David, to meet with President George W. Bush.
Jan. 3, 2017, the Internet: The Need to Know network, a political news aggregation site, posts a piece criticizing Schumer for going after then President-elect Trump’s relationship with Russia, when Schumer had been cordial to Putin in 2003. The piece cites a description of the meeting from the Taipei Times, and that article also happens to include the uncropped version of the photograph that Trump tweeted. The Taipei Times version of the image has some weird color issues that aren’t in the original handout distributed by the Associated Press, which will plague the visuals of this meme all the way to the end.
According to the Taipei Times report, which appears to draw on other wire reports, the visit lasted about 10 minutes, and Putin gave no official remarks. When asked about the doughnut, Schumer said: “When I showed the president of Russia a Krispy Kreme doughnut and he ate it and said it was good, that was one of the more surreal moments I’ve had in politics.”
The Need to Know piece draws from the Taipei Times report pretty heavily, and essentially makes the argument that Schumer is “striking a different tone” about Russia, perhaps for political reasons.
March 2, 2017, Truth Division: A day after The Washington Post reported on Sessions’s undisclosed meetings, the Truth Divison, a right-wing site, picks up on the photo. Their argument is that there’s “nothing wrong with people from different parts of the world talking, celebrating, or building relationships,” and that the only reason people are freaking out about Sessions is because of an anti-Trump bias.
The post defends both Sessions and former national security adviser Michael Flynn, who resigned in February after revelations about his contacts with Russian officials before Trump took office — and the misleading statements he made to the incoming administration about them. The Truth Division post has more than 80,000 shares on Facebook, according to the platform’s API.
March 2, 2017, social media: The photo ends up on Reddit’s r/The_Donald on Thursday evening as well, where the active Trump-supporting subreddit rapidly upvotes it. It also spreads on Twitter:
March 3, 7:13 a.m., Twitter: In response to a tweet from Schumer, Trump’s director of social media tweets the picture at the senator himself:
Meanwhile, other right-wing sites are picking up on the meme on the heels of its virality on r/The_Donald. The Gateway Pundit piece is picked up by The Drudge Report, where it leads the right-wing news site’s homepage.
March 3, 1:24 p.m., Twitter: Schumer responds.
[This post has been updated to clarify the source of the Gateway Pundit’s article on the photograph]