Team Trump’s disingenuous ‘Russian adoption’ talking point, debunked

What the Russians really want to talk about when they say they want to talk about adoption.

Donald Trump Jr., son of President-elect Donald Trump waits for an elevator at Trump Tower, Tuesday, Nov. 15, 2016 in New York. CREDIT: AP Photo/Carolyn Kaster
Donald Trump Jr., son of President-elect Donald Trump waits for an elevator at Trump Tower, Tuesday, Nov. 15, 2016 in New York. CREDIT: AP Photo/Carolyn Kaster

When the New York Times first reported that Donald Trump Jr., Paul Manafort and Jared Kushner had taken a meeting with a Kremlin-linked lawyer during the 2016 election campaign, Trump Jr. initially offered up an innocuous-sounding subject matter: adoptions.

“We primarily discussed a program about the adoption of Russian children that was active and popular with American families years ago and was since ended by the Russian government, but it was not a campaign issue at the time and there was no follow up,” he said in a statement.

Two days later, the story has gone through a rapid evolution: On Sunday, the Times followed up with a report that actually, Trump Jr. had been lured to the meeting with the promise of damaging information on Democratic presidential candidate Hillary Clinton — one of the first public signs that the Trump campaign was open to accepting help from foreigners in their bid for the presidency.

Trump Jr. and other members of the Trump team, however, are insisting that the primary subject discussed at the meeting was Russian adoptions, and thus it’s ultimately irrelevant why he took the meeting in the first place.

Kellyanne Conway took a similar line while defending his actions on Good Morning America on Monday.

“I think that Tom Llamas, your colleague, put it best. He said that these were vague and ambiguous statements, that Don Jr. was not aware of the lawyer’s name before he got there, and that the conversation quickly changed to what seemed to be the entire purpose of the meeting for that woman, which was Russian adoption.”

Even if the meeting did end up being primarily about adoption, however, the talking point is disingenuous. In reality, the adoption program was halted by the Russian government in retaliation for the Magnitsky Act, in which Congress imposed sanctions on certain Russian figures over human rights issues.

The act is named for Sergei Magnitsky, a Russian tax attorney who alleged that corrupt officials in Putin’s government stole $230 million. After Magnitsky uncovered the fraud, he was arrested on the premise that he was perpetuating fraud himself. While in Russian prison, he was beaten and tortured. He died while incarcerated under suspicious circumstances.

In 2012, Congress passed an act in his name that enables the U.S. to withhold visas and freeze the assets of officials thought to be involved in his death and human rights violations. The passage of the act enraged Putin, prompting him to pass similar sanctions in response and to halt the adoption program.

Repealing the Magnitsky Act is one of Putin’s primary foreign policy goals in Washington. It would be impossible for Trump Jr. to talk about resuming the adoption program without touching on easing the sanctions, which is a top priority of Putin’s regime.

And in fact, a person familiar with the conversation told the Wall Street Journal that the act was discussed at the meeting, which Trump Jr. confirmed to the Times on Sunday.

The lawyer they met with, Natalia Veselnitskaya, has been heavily involved in attempts to repeal the Magnitsky Act. She is involved in a Delaware-registered lobbying group that is advocating for the act’s repeal and helped organize a Brussels screening of an anti-Magnitsky film.

And, she’s served as the lawyer for Russian state-owned businesses and is the attorney for Denis Katsyv, a Russian businessman who recently settled with the DOJ for millions as part of a money-laundering case linked to the Magnistsky affair. Katsyv’s father was formerly Moscow’s transportation minister.

The DOJ investigation was initiated by U.S. Attorney Preet Bharara, who was fired by President Donald Trump before the investigation was completed. The ultimate settlement was for less than three percent of the amount initially sought and allowed the company to avoid a potentially damaging trial. Both the U.S. government and the Russian company spun the settlement as a victory.

In the end, what Trump Jr., Manafort, and Kushner discussed with Veselnitskaya doesn’t negate why Trump Jr. took the meeting in the first place. Even so, the focus on adoptions as a talking point elides what really lies at the heart of the issue, which is U.S. sanctions against Russia.

And taken together, both parts of Trump Jr’s statements about the meeting paint a particular picture.

By his own account, Trump Jr. took the meeting after being promised something that the Trump campaign wanted — ammunition against their political opponent. Then at that meeting, he and the other members of the Trump team discussed something Putin wanted, a matter that Trump could influence should he become president.

Trump Jr. and the Trump administration insist that no useful information was actually passed on, and the meeting went nowhere.

But the fact remains, any time the Trump team insists that it was just a simple discussion of adoptions, they’re glossing over years of complicated backstory — and deflecting from the real reason why news of the meeting has been hailed as so explosive.