Too good to check: The great "Mariia Butina in the Oval Office" photo fiasco

A fleeting sensation on Twitter this morning from Mic reporter Emily Singer, worthy of more than 1,500 retweets:

See the redheaded woman in the doorway, her face just visible over the shoulder of the guy in the blue tie? Click here for a larger version, published by the NYT last year when Trump welcomed a Russian delegation to the White House. She does look a bit like accused Russian spy Mariia Butina! What was an undercover Russian spy doing in the Oval Office along with all of those, uh, known Russian spies?

Singer’s tweet caught fire among the political chatterati on Twitter. Then someone bothered to fact-check it:

Other reporters soon heard the same. That’s Lutkins, not Butina. The passing resemblance is just that — a passing resemblance:

Even Singer has now thrown in the towel, 1,500 retweets later:

The funny thing about the initial hysteria is that it made no sense on the merits. Why the hell would Russia have risked blowing Butina’s cover by including her in a delegation of state officials to meet Trump? She was here in the U.S. as a Russian gun-rights advocate who was supposedly interested in meeting Republicans only because of their overlapping interests in the NRA. Sticking her in a small group with Russian eminences like Sergei Lavrov would have been a neon sign to U.S. intelligence to watch her more closely.

Even if they had been so foolish as to add Butina to the delegation, why would it have been especially ominous for her to be in the meeting? I understand the visceral reaction to the photo among reporters in seeing what they thought was a just-unmasked Russian spy inside the Oval Office, near the president, but … everyone in that room is a Russian agent. The tubby white-haired guy with the folder is Sergei Kislyak, the Russian ambassador whose phone chats with Mike Flynn during the transition led to Flynn resigning as NSA. It would have been more ominous if the real Butina had ended up in the White House with a group of *non*-Russians, as that would raise the question of whether U.S. agents had let down their guard in screening for foreign intelligence operatives seeking access to the president. In a crowd of known high-ranking Russian operatives, though, there’s no such worry. Every American was on guard. Well, except Trump, I guess.

The lesson here is — eh, there is no lesson. No one learns lessons anymore. Some reporters are going to leap at juicy Russia-related gotchas without fact-checking whether or not the gotcha makes sense, especially after Trump’s Helsinki fiasco raised suspicions about him anew. Just be grateful no one’s written a “What if it’s Butina in a Cari Lutkins mask?” piece. Yet.