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Putin Speaks Code. Does Trump Understand?

The opinions expressed by columnists are their own and do not necessarily represent the views of

Back when word first leaked that Jared Kushner, Paul Manafort and Donald Trump Jr. had met with a Russian lawyer and others offering dirt on Hillary Clinton, President Trump seemed to think he was supplying an exculpatory cover story. Flying home from Germany on Air Force One, Trump reportedly instructed Don Jr. to claim that he and the Kremlin-linked lawyer had "primarily discussed a program about the adoption of Russian children." There is apparently some debate about whether that misleading statement places the president in any legal jeopardy, but there is another aspect to the story that has received less attention. It came up again during the Helsinki debacle: Putin, the world's richest man and most successful thief, is obsessed with the Magnitsky Act.

In fact, the very mention of Russian adoptions was a tipoff that the attorney, Natalia Veselnitskaya, was probably representing Vladimir Putin. Whether Trump knew this at the time is unclear. After all, he could not say what the nuclear triad was and endorsed "Article XII" of the U.S. Constitution. Maybe he thought mentioning that they discussed Russian adoptions was the most anodyne-sounding explanation for the meeting.

Except it wasn't. If they spoke of adoptions, it means they spoke of the Magnitsky Act, the sanctions bill the U.S. enacted at the urging of William Browder, a hedge fund manager and, at one time, the largest foreign investor in Russia. Funny, Browder's name came up again in Helsinki, when Putin accused him of tax evasion and theft and contributing to the Hillary Clinton campaign (all totally false) and suggested that the U.S. should hand him over for questioning in exchange for permitting Robert Mueller to question the 12 GRU agents just indicted for meddling in our election. Putin later added former U.S. Ambassador to Russia Michael McFaul to the list of those his goons would interrogate. Our stable genius president leaped at this as an "incredible offer." A few days later, he scaled back.

Those who follow relations with Russia know that Vladimir Putin used the fate of Russian orphans as a way to retaliate against the United States for the Magnitsky Act. If they were talking adoptions at Trump Tower it's because they were talking about sanctions relief, a matter dear to Putin's heart. In exchange for what?

Sergei Magnitsky was the accountant who worked for William Browder. When Browder's firm, Hermitage Capital, was the victim of a fraud and embezzlement scheme, Magnitsky patiently pieced together the truth. Those responsible, it turned out, were Russian government agents, living large and enjoying BMWs and seaside apartments. Magnitsky's reward was to be arrested and tortured to death. Oh, and to add a nice Soviet-style touch, Putin's government pinned the embezzlement on Magnitsky. Putin's retaliation, halting adoptions of Russian babies by Americans, was another human rights abuse.

Browder was shaken to his core by Magnitsky's fate and has since devoted his life to passing Magnitsky laws in every country he can convince. Ours passed in 2012. The law forbids Americans to do any business, including banking, with those who had a part in Magnitsky's torture and death, thus making it more difficult for Russian criminals (i.e., state actors, including Putin) to stash stolen money in the U.S. or other countries that have adopted such laws. It would not be strange for a president of the United States to award someone like Bill Browder a medal. It is pathetic for a president of the United States to be so obtuse or ignorant or both as to agree, before all the world, that such a man might be questioned by Putin's trained attack dogs.

If you watched the Helsinki press conference, you saw Trump bowing and scraping to ingratiate himself with Putin. He kept thanking the Russian for attending the meeting, stressed that using the word "competitor" was intended as a compliment (in contrast to his treatment of NATO allies) and whined that the Mueller investigation had "kept (them) separated." The man who swore to put America first blamed America first for poor relations with Russia.

What you saw in Putin was the cat who'd swallowed the canary. He was calm. He smiled. We later learned that, on his way to Helsinki, his plane had violated NATO air space by flying over Estonia without permission. He is rubbing our noses in it.

"There was no collusion," President Trump keeps saying. It may be true, or it may not. But his behavior in Helsinki, like so much of what he says and does, reveals a shallow, unworthy, power-worshipping man who does not understand what he is sworn to uphold.

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