When Donald Trump Jr.’s now-infamous meeting with a Kremlin-backed lawyer first came to light last week, the younger Trump insisted the real reason for the meeting was an innocuous one: to discuss the adoption of Russian children.
It now seems clear that the meeting had actually been convened to discuss the possibility of the Trump campaign colluding with Russia to weaken Hillary Clinton’s presidential bid.
Nevertheless, Russian adoption is a subject that seems to have come up a lot lately. Wednesday evening the New York Times published a wide-ranging interview with the president, during which Trump formally acknowledged his previously-undisclosed second conversation with Russian President Vladmir Putin at the G20 summit in Hamburg. “I actually talked about Russian adoption with [Putin],” Trump told reporters, recalling their dinner party chatter. “Which is interesting because it was a part of the conversation that Don had in that meeting.”
The idea of Trump Jr. meeting with a prominent Russian lawyer to talk about adoption — and Trump Sr. picking up where he left off — isn’t as outlandish as it may seem. That’s because the growing scandal over the meeting at Trump Tower obscures a genuine dispute between Washington and Moscow that has prevented thousands of Russian orphans from finding new homes in the US.
The fight began in 2012, when Russian President Vladimir Putin halted all US adoptions of Russian children, upending the lives of hundreds of American families. Putin’s move was retaliation for a very specific series of punitive measures the United States passed earlier that year after a young Russian lawyer named Sergei Magnitsky died under mysterious circumstances in a Russian prison.
There had been some slight indications in recent months that Putin was willing to rethink the adoption ban, a move that would have been a win for both Russian children and their would-be American parents. Those hopes have now been dashed, again.
Put another way, the Trump administration is paying a heavy political price for its apparent willingness to collude with Moscow during the campaign. It gets far less attention, but the human cost may be just as high.
A single US law led Putin to halt all adoptions of Russian children
Sergei Magnitsky was a 35-year-old Russian lawyer employed by Hermitage Capital, a hedge fund run by an American-born billionaire named William Browder. In 2007, Magnitsky uncovered a $230 million tax fraud scheme that implicated top Kremlin officials and friends of Putin.
Magnitsky was arrested in November 2008 and died a year later in a Russian prison. The official cause of death was untreated pancreatitis, a severe abdominal inflammation, and heart failure, but many outside observers say he’d been beaten and tortured while in police custody.
Bill Browder began speaking out in Washington about the young lawyer’s death. After intense lobbying, the House and Senate overwhelmingly approved the Sergei Magnitsky Rule of Law Accountability Act in late 2012. (The Obama administration initially opposed the bill because they thought it might hamper their efforts to improve the broader US relationship with Putin.)
The legislation froze the assets of those suspected of being involved in Magnitsky’s death and denied them US visas. That list first named 18 Russian officials. It has since grown to 44, including names of others suspected of human rights abuses.
Upon its passage, Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov promised retaliation. “We will also close entry to Americans who are guilty of human rights violations," he said.
As it turned out, Russia decided to punish Americans looking to adopt Russian children instead.
The tragic death of a toddler sparked years of diplomatic fighting
Putin imposed the adoption ban on December 28, 2012, three weeks after the Magnitsky Act was approved by the Senate. It seemed pretty clear at the outset that it was meant as direct retaliation for the US legislation.
Putin, however, claimed he’d actually banned American families from adopting Russian children because of reports that some had been mistreated after moving to the US. In Russia, the anti-adoption ban legislation was named for a toddler named Dimi Yakovlev, who died after his adoptive parents left him in a locked car for nine hours. His adoptive father was charged with involuntary manslaughter but was acquitted in a ruling that sparked outrage across Russia.
“Russia always seemed troubled they had such an orphan problem, and had to rely on us and other countries to find homes,” says Chuck Johnson, the president and CEO of the National Council For Adoption.
It’s impossible to know exactly what was in Putin’s head when he imposed the ban, but Johnson notes that it came just shy of eight weeks after the US and Russia had signed a bilateral agreement on adoptions from Russia.
In other words, Putin had been perfectly fine with American families adopting Russian children right up until the Magnitsky Act passed.
US families adopted 60,000 Russian children before the ban took effect
Russia pointed to 19 Russian children who died in the care of their adoptive American parents, and others who were abused or otherwise mistreated. In one particularly striking case, an American woman sent her child back to Russia on a plane, and stuck a note on him saying he was too much to handle.
Those stories were tragic and terrible. But they were also, thankfully, unusual: American families had taken in some 60,000 children from the former Soviet Union after its fall, including 1,000 in 2011.
And then that number fell, abruptly, to zero. Several hundred American families were somewhere in the middle of the two- to three-year adoption process when Putin imposed the ban in December 2012. They had already spent the money (often upward of $50,000 per adoption), repeatedly traveled back and forth to Russia (typically three times, at least), and begun to imagine their lives with the children they already thought of as their own. That was all snatched away.
But it wasn’t just would-be American parents who suffered. Hundreds, if not thousands, of Russian children who might have found families, and homes of their own, were forced to instead remain in Russia’s often overcrowded and underfunded orphanages and foster care institutions. Putin, in other words, hurt his own people too.
Former Democratic Sen. Mary Landrieu of Louisiana, herself the adoptive mother of two children, was one of the loudest congressional critics of Putin’s ban.
“Russia took it out on their own children — not our children — by preventing their own children from finding loving and nurturing homes here in the US when those homes were available,” she told me in an interview.
Which isn’t to say that American families haven’t also paid a heavy price.
Kim Summers was in Russia in January 2013, shortly after Putin’s ban took effect. She and her husband had driven quickly from Moscow to the town of Kaluga, about four hours away, while waiting, filled with anxiety, to see if the child they had already called their son for more than a year would be allowed to go home with them. In the end, he was. “I can’t describe to you the fear,” she recalls, of the six days spent waiting for his papers.
“I say thank God every day,” she says now.
Preston Summers, then 22 months, became one of the last Russian children passed into custody of an American family. He’s now six and a half, an athletic, out-going New Jersey kid.
But the Summerses, like many adoptive parents, had hoped to also possibly adopt another child from Russia. They look at the photos of the children they met in Kaluga’s orphanage, and think back on all those faces, all those lives, left behind.
“It’s the cruelest thing,” Kim Summers says of the ban.
There was some hope the ban might be lifted. That’s gone now.
The biggest irony of Trump Jr. getting involved in this mess may be that it has made the situation all the more intractable — for the orphans.
“We had hoped all these years for a political solution,” says Johnson, the adoption advocate.
Now, though, Russia has become such a toxic issue in American politics that it’s virtually impossible to imagine the Senate lifting or modifying the Magnitsky Act as part of a theoretical broader adoption deal.
“It would take extraordinary circumstances to see [the adoption ban] lifted,” he says.
That’s particularly depressing given that Russia had, earlier this year, seemed more open to changing its own rules than it had in some time. In January, the European Court of Human Rights ruled in favor of families who were left in the lurch by the ban.
“We are ready for dialogue,” Valentina Matviyenko, a Russian parliamentarian, said at the time.
But so far there has been little more than talk. And Johnson fears that in the current environment, any movement on adoption would be seen as collusion, or payback.
“I, along with many others, was very critical of Russia and President Putin for using Russian orphans as pawns in a larger political fight,” he says. “But it feels right now that our country is just as guilty for engaging in debates that aren’t likely to find compromise when we really could get down to business and do some things that will make a tremendous difference for children that need families.”
With the scandal over the Trump Jr. meeting still gathering steam, those debates aren’t likely to end anytime soon. That’s bad news for the American families who dream of adopting a Russian child. It’s also bad news for the Russian kids suffering because of the whims of their own president.