The White House is apparently irked with SpaceX and Tesla CEO Elon Musk after a selfie of the entrepreneur with a Russian propagandist ended up online.
As Bloomberg reports, there doesn't appear to have been much of an exchange between Musk and Russian TV personality Nailya Asker-Zade beyond the purportedly state-controlled journalist asking him for a photo at the World Cup in December.
Nevertheless, the photo and exchange — which ended up on TikTok, naturally — represent a problem for Washington, given not just Musk's general business stature but specifically that he controls SpaceX, a major NASA and military contractor.
As others pointed out yesterday, this is Elon posing for a selfie with Nailya Asker-Zade, the common-law wife of Andrey Kostin, chairman of VTB’s Management Board. She’s rumored to be personally responsible for “placing ads” (paying to bury negative stories) for VTB on Telegram. pic.twitter.com/LwshyzCEDV
— Kevin Rothrock (@KevinRothrock) December 19, 2022
Asker-Zade, as Insider and other outlets noted at the time of the selfie, is one of the stars of the All-Russia State Television and Radio Broadcasting Company. According to the Open Sanctions database, she's been sanctioned by the United Kingdom, Canada, and Ukraine for her work as a pro-Putin propagandist. She's also, social media commentators have noted, in a relationship with Andrey Kostin, the president of the VTB bank that is itself under American sanctions.
Observers were flummoxed.
"Elon," tweeted Russian anti-corruption crusader Ivan Zhdanov in response, "I hope you didn't know who it was."
It sounds like the White House was also unhappy. With all that baggage, it's easy to see why people in the Biden administration are sweating that the man who flies American astronauts to space would be palling around with her — especially in conjunction with Musk's Russia-friendly commentary about the Ukraine invasion, per US intelligence officials who spoke to Bloomberg on condition of anonymity.
As the report notes, the Asker-Zade selfie is just one data point in a larger web of Washingtonian concern about Musk, who now owns companies in such disparate sectors as aerospace, telecommunications, transportation, social media, and even health (we're pretty sure they're referencing Neuralink there, which has its own spate of government issues).
There has even, per Bloomberg's anonymous government sources, been speculation about whether the US government might seek to break up Musk's empire, though it doesn't sound like there's anything remotely concrete there.
In an interview with Bloomberg last week, onetime presidential candidate and current Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg attempted to be diplomatic about the Musk of it all. Even so, he reportedly took a long while to gather his thoughts when asked about the Canadian-South African mogul.
"I really try to separate the..." Buttigieg said before trailing off for a reported 10 seconds. "Things people pay a lot of attention to, from the things I need to pay the most attention to."
Like much in Muskworld, the situation is overall just strikingly bizarre. There's no love lost between Musk and Russia, Musk and the Biden administration, or between the Biden Administration and Russia — so basically, the whole thing is the opposite of a love triangle, and inconvenient for everybody involved.
When reached for comment by the news outlet via email, Musk responded to questions about Washington's concerns with an almost hilariously characteristic rebuttal.
"I believe in the Constitution," Musk told the news outlet. "Do they?"
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