Chaotic scene between press corps and security unfolds at start of Geneva summit

A physical altercation broke out Wednesday at the start of President Joe Biden’s first summit with his Russian counterpart as reporters from each country shoved each other, and security, in their attempts to access the sole joint photo-op of the talks.

The moments of chaos were a minor subplot to an otherwise monumental meeting. But the jostling did make the two leaders’ opening remarks nearly impossible to hear during the only expected opportunity to see them speak and interact with each other on camera.

As it unfolded, both men seemed confused at what exactly was interrupting them from getting started. At one point, Biden appeared to ask Secretary of State Antony Blinken what was happening.

Biden and Putin were broadcast on live television delivering brief remarks in a book-lined study amid chatter coming from behind the cameras. During some moments, the leaders sat in silence waiting for the press corps to settle in.

At times, the scene was so chaotic that some of the journalists packed into the room blocked cameras’ view of the leaders during the brief moment of press access inside Villa La Grange.

“Go away, please,” a handler with a Russian accent said to reporters as the spray concluded

Behind the scenes, press access to the summit had been highly negotiated, with equal numbers for each side. Both Russian and American officials appeared to be trying to account for who was allowed in and who must stay outside.

The group of 13 American journalists, photographers and camera operators traveling with the President — known as the press pool — didn’t all make it into the room after combative encounters with Russian media. Several reporters were left outside as the two presidents appeared for the photo-op.

Members of the American media at the villa described frenzied moments inside the meeting room, with shouting and pushing, before reporters were pushed out. Aides attempted to pull the full US contingent into the room, but doors were blocked and the spray happened quickly.

One reporter described being shoved to the ground in the fray. And at one point, someone put their hand around a US press member’s throat.

Almost immediately after the appearance by Biden and Putin, Russian press blamed American journalists for the chaos. A reporter for state-owned Ria Novosti, Pavel Zarubin, said that “the chaos was added to by the American journalists and the American side constantly trying to squeeze in more cameramen and journalists and it ended up with what you saw.”

American reporters were able to ask three questions to the leaders, including asking Putin if he feared jailed Russian dissident Alexey Navalny. They also asked about Ukraine joining NATO and whether Biden trusted Putin.

When a member of the US press pool asked the President if he trusted his Russian counterpart, they relayed that Biden “looked me in the eye and nodded affirmatively.”

But the White House has pushed back on the claim, saying in a statement that it was a “general head nod.”

“During a chaotic free for all with members of the press shouting questions over each other, the President gave a general head nod in the direction of the media. He wasn’t responding to any question or anything other than the chaos,” White House press secretary Jen Psaki said.

A similarly chaotic scene over press access unfolded in 2019 when former President Donald Trump met with North Korean leader Kim Jong Un.

At the DMZ meeting between the two leaders, then-White House press secretary Stephanie Grisham was bruised during a brawl with North Korean officials as American and North Korean reporters were hustled in to view the summit.

CNN’s Kevin Liptak reported from Geneva and Maegan Vazquez reported from Washington.