In mounting fear of special counsel Robert Mueller – who is now reported to be preparing indictments that will be unsealed before Thanksgiving – Republicans on Capitol Hill and in the White House, as well as their media echoes, are reviving the discredited “Russian uranium” accusations against the Clinton Foundation. The aim of this tale is to turn public attention away from the disturbing and well-documented connections between Donald Trump and the Kremlin by fabricating a conspiracy that enfolds the Clintons, the Obama administration, and perhaps even the FBI into allegations of collusion with the Russians.
The original charges against the Clinton Foundation, first promoted by a strange journalistic partnership between Steve Bannon and the New York Times, are old and stale. In an effort to refresh them, Republicans and right-wing media outlets allude to nameless secret sources who will offer damning testimony yet to be heard. But the inquisitors in Congress and elsewhere still confront an insurmountable problem that makes nonsense of their bribery theory: although Hillary Clinton was Secretary of State when the U.S. government approved Russian acquisition of some US uranium assets, neither she nor the Clinton Foundation exercised any control over that decision. She couldn’t have been bribed. She had nothing to sell.
The latest broadsides from the right on this topic demand more detailed examination. For the moment, however, let’s review how it all began.
I examined the origins of the trumped-up tale of Uranium One in my recent book Man of the World: The Further Endeavors of Bill Clinton (Simon & Schuster 2016) — which will be published next month in a convenient paperback edition, with a new Afterword about the presidential election and its aftermath.
What follows is a relevant excerpt:
Few American authors would dare to imagine the publicity bonanza that the editors of the New York Times bestowed on Peter Schweizer’s Clinton Cash: The Untold Story of How and Why Foreign Governments and Businesses Helped Make Bill and Hillary Rich. During the weeks leading up to its publication in early May—and only days after Hillary announced her presidential candidacy—the Times published not one but two articles promoting and implicitly endorsing the book—which, as its title indicated, purported to expose the Clintons’ enrichment by foreign interests.
It was the kind of publicity that money literally could never buy.
On April 19, the paper led its politics section with a story by Amy Chozick that described Clinton Cash as “the most anticipated and feared book of a presidential cycle still in its infancy.” The author’s background as a Republican partisan and former speechwriter for George W. Bush and Sarah Palin, wrote Chozick, would be used by Clinton supporters to discredit him as yet another in a long line of biased critics—but that might be more difficult, she added, because Schweizer “writes mainly in the voice of a neutral journalist and meticulously documents his sources . . . while leaving little doubt about his view of the Clintons.”
Beyond that affirmation of his methods, Chozick reported that both the Times and the Washington Post—as well as Fox News Channel—had entered into “exclusive” deals with Schweizer to pursue “story lines” in his book. To anyone in the Clinton camp who remembered the Whitewater “scandal,” which began with investigative stories in the Times and the Post, this collaboration between the two leading print outposts of the “liberal media” and hostile Republican sources looked all too familiar.
Scores of readers noticed the incongruous arrangement in Chozick’s story and protested to Margaret Sullivan, the Times public editor. Sullivan posted a column four days later, expressing her distaste for the “exclusive” deal with Schweizer, while expressing complete faith in the paper’s editors to handle such material properly.
But that same day, Sullivan’s mild demurral was overshadowed as the Times presented the fruit of its collaboration with Schweizer on the front page of its print edition and in the top spot on its website—a 4,400-word story vaguely headlined “Cash Flowed to Clinton Foundation Amid Russian Uranium Deal,” by investigative reporters Jo Becker and Mike McIntire, which explored the disposition of uranium mining rights in Kazakhstan and the United States by a group of Canadian investors that had once included foundation donor Frank Giustra—and that left those strategic reserves in Russian hands.
Before joining the Times staff, Becker had shared a Pulitzer Prize at the Washington Post. She also had shared a byline on the January 2008 Times investigation of Giustra’s uranium deal in the Central Asian nation and his connections with Clinton. Whatever other motives might have inspired the paper’s deal with Schweizer seven years later, the Times editors leapt at a chance to revisit that story—which had provoked an embarrassing public correction in Forbes magazine.
The April 23 story revisited the first Times investigation in detail, even repeating one of its most easily checked errors: the claim that Giustra and Clinton had flown together on Giustra’s jet to Almaty, the Kazakh capital. (Actually, Clinton and his staff had arrived four days later on another friend’s plane.)
But the new story hinted at a more serious accusation: Through a complicated series of deals, Russia had gained control of a portion of U.S. uranium reserves through a Vancouver-based firm called Uranium One, while the Canadian investors who profited had given millions to the Clinton Foundation. The Russian acquisition of those American mines had been approved by the Clinton-led State Department, while those Canadian donations “flowed.”
The story noted that any such deal required the approval of “a number of United States government agencies.” It mentioned that some of the story’s information had been “unearthed” by Schweizer, “a former fellow at the right-leaning Hoover Institution and author of the forth- coming book Clinton Cash,” who had “provided a preview of material in the book to the Times,” which added its own extensive reporting.
“Whether the donations played any role in the approval of the uranium deal is unknown,” the reporters acknowledged. But on the pages of the Times, even the suggestion that donations from Giustra or other investors influenced Hillary amplified Schweizer’s theme. They also reported that Bill Clinton had received $500,000 for a speech delivered in Moscow to a bank connected with Uranium One.
The story’s insinuation was bolstered by the reporters’ discovery that $2.3 million from the Uranium One investors had not been disclosed on the foundation’s website, but made public only in Canadian tax records. A Times editorial the same day complained about the “messiness” of Hillary’s connection with her husband’s foundation, and urged her to impose tighter restrictions on its fundraising.
The question that the Times failed to raise, let alone answer, is why anyone interested in the Russian uranium deal would have sought to influence the secretary of state—when her department had only one vote out of nine on the Committee on Foreign Investment in the United States that had to approve the deal.
While Clinton Cash attributed a “central role” to Hillary, she hadn’t participated at all in the Uranium One deliberations. According to the assistant secretary of state who represented her on the panel, “Mrs. Clinton never intervened with me on any CFIUS matter.” Knowledgeable observers of CFIUS believe its decisions are dominated by the Pentagon and the Treasury Department, which chairs the committee, not State. And the nine agencies on CFIUS had unanimously approved the sale of the remainder of Uranium One to the Russians in 2013, several months after Hillary had left the government. That sale also required additional approvals from the Nuclear Regulatory Commission and Canadian regulators.
In short, cultivating the Clintons would have guaranteed nothing for the Uranium One investors. They had given well over $2 million during a period of several years, but a foundation spokesman—and Giustra—insisted that Canadian and provincial tax laws forbade disclosure of their names without their specific consent.
As for Giustra, the Uranium One investors were his friends and former partners, and he was assuredly a very big Clinton donor. But he had divested all of his Uranium One stock almost three years before the Russian sale went through.
Yet somehow all those exculpatory details were ignored in the subsequent coverage on cable TV and talk radio, where Clinton’s opponents talked loosely of “bribery”—often during interviews with Schweizer, whose book debuted on May 24 as the number two Times nonfiction bestseller and stayed on the list for several weeks.