Why did Putin talk to Trump about 'adoption'?

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U.S. President Donald Trump shakes hands with Russian President Vladimir Putin during the their bilateral meeting at the G20 summit in Hamburg, Germany July 7, 2017Image source, Reuters

Buried in the middle of the wide-ranging interview Donald Trump granted the New York Times on Wednesday was an interesting tidbit. What, exactly, did the US president and Vladimir Putin discuss when they exchanged "pleasantries" during a dinner at the recently concluded G20 summit?

The subject, Mr Trump said, was "adoption".

If that seems a strange topic for a post-meal chat it helps to understand that, when it comes to US-Russia relations, a conversation about adoption isn't really about adoption. It's about sanctions.

In particular it's about the restrictions placed on high-level Russian officials by the Magnitsky Act, a law passed by the US Congress in 2012 after Russian lawyer and government critic Sergei Magnitsky died under questionable circumstances while being held in a Russian prison in 2009.

Media caption,

Reality Check: Six Trump promises after six months

The Sergei Magnitsky Rule of Law Accountability Act, as it's formally known, has been a burr under Mr Putin's proverbial saddle ever since it hit the books. It imposed visa restrictions and froze the US assets of 18 senior Russian officials deemed by the US government to have committed human rights abuses.

At the time Mr Putin called the law a "purely political, unfriendly move" and an improper intrusion on to a Russian domestic issue. He - and other state officials - have been working diligently to have it repealed ever since.

The adoption issue comes into play because, in retaliation for the Magnitsky Act, Russia suspended a programme that allowed Americans to adopt Russian orphaned children. The Russians called their measure the Dima Yakovlev law, so-named because of a Russian adoptee who died of heat exposure after being left in a car by his American father.

Media caption,

An "orphan village" near Moscow is helping to reshape the way Russia approaches fostering.

When Mr Trump and Mr Putin had their until-recently undisclosed conversation in front of 18 other world leaders and their spouses, with only a Russian translator privy to what was said, they could very well have been discussing what it would take for both the Yakovlev and the Magnitsky laws to go away.

It wouldn't be the first time a Trump and a Russian advocate discussed the subject either, as the president himself helpfully pointed out to the New York Times.

"And I actually talked about Russian adoption with him, which is interesting because it was a part of the conversation that Don [Jr, Mr Trump's son] had in that meeting," the president told the Times reporters.

"That meeting," in this case, was the highly controversial June 2016 sit-down in which Trump Jr, presidential son-in-law Jared Kushner and then-campaign chair Paul Manafort met with a delegation of Russian lawyers and lobbyists who count repealing the Magnitsky Law as one of their top priorities.

The meeting was set up by Trump Jr associate Rob Goldstone, who billed it as an opportunity for the Trump campaign to receive damaging information about Democrat Hillary Clinton as part of an official Russian government effort to help Donald Trump be elected president.

Image source, Reuters
Image caption,
Mr Trump Jr, Mr Kushner and Mr Manafort are all expected to testify in front of Congress next week

Yeah, that meeting.

Trump Jr originally said the meeting was mostly to talk about adoption.

Just like, about a year later, now-President Trump and Mr Putin were mostly talking about adoption at a G-20 dinner in Germany.