Untangling the 'Clinton Gave the Russians Uranium' Conspiracy Theory
A primer on the narrative being pushed by Donald Trump and right-wing media outlets.
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Since news broke on Friday that Robert Mueller would soon hand down the first indictments in the special counsel's investigation into Russian influence in the 2016 elections, President Donald Trump and his right-wing allies have worked to convince Americans that the media and the investigators are focused on the wrong things. The real scandal, they say, is not the prospect that his campaign may have colluded with Russian agents to release emails hacked from the accounts of Democratic officials. Conservative media outlets and commenters have instead insisted that Hillary Clinton and the Democrats have themselves conspired with Russian interests.
"The evidence Clinton campaign, DNC & Russia colluded to influence the election is indisputable," Sarah Huckabee Sanders tweeted from her White House press secretary account on Saturday.
Sanders linked to an article from the Federalist, a right-wing outlet, on the "Steele dossier," the compilation of raw intel that infamously included a detail about Trump supposedly getting Russian prostitutes to pee on a bed. (It was posted online by BuzzFeed News following the election after circulating widely in political and media circles.) The dossier, compiled by a former UK intelligence officer named Christopher Steele, contained a number of unconfirmed claims from Russian sources; one of the major arguments Trump and company have lobbed out over the last few days is that since Democrats paid Fusion GPS, the opposition research firm employing Steele (a recent revelation from Washington Post), it means Democrats indirectly paid Russian agents for dirt on Trump.
In that telling, the Democrats "colluded" with Russians to create a document of juicy anti-Trump propaganda—and then somehow forgot to release it as Trump, the most pro-Russia presidential candidate in decades, won the election.
But administration allies at conservative outlets like Fox News have also revived the story of Clinton's supposed skullduggery around the so-called "Uranium One" deal in recent days to prove she has been corrupted by Russia. Former Trump adviser Sebastian Gorka went so far as to suggest on Sean Hannity's show late last week that the deal was tantamount to treason.
Uranium One has been a calling card for right-leaning Clinton skeptics since Peter Schweizer wrote about it in his Steve Bannon-backed takedown Clinton Cash in 2015; the New York Times built on his reporting and lent the case heft. Trump made it a central Clinton critique at his rallies from the spring of 2016 onwards, and has continued to talk about it as president. Toward the middle of October, it was brought back to the public eye again, triggering new Congressional probes on whether the deal involved wrongdoing—maybe by Clinton.
The uranium deal an almost talismanic term to many Clinton haters by now, said Eric Oliver, a political scientist who studies conspiratorial thinking. "All you have to say is Hillary, uranium, Russians," and many Americans immediately get connotations of dangerous impropriety, he told me. But while many Americans instinctively feel the term "Clinton uranium deal" is important and has something to do with Russia, the details can seem opaque or esoteric, especially with Trump's habit of making extremely vague accusations on Twitter. So let's break it down:
What's Uranium One?
The "uranium deal" refers to the acquisition of a 51 percent share in the Canadian firm Uranium One by a subsidiary of Rosatom, a Russian-government-owned energy company, in 2010. Since Uranium One had acquired some uranium mines, exploration fields, and processing facilities in the American West, the US had a stake in the deal. And since uranium is a national energy security and safety issue, that triggered a process by which the United States reviewed the deal to see if it would be detrimental to its interests. The acquisition was approved, making Rosatom a key global uranium player and advancing Russian President Vladimir Putin's ambitions of atomic energy dominance.
The accusation pushed by Trump and others is that Clinton approved this deal and thus harmed American interests by surrendering 20 percent of our uranium to Russia. And she did it for a big payoff, they often allege, pointing to Clinton Cash and the New York Times' reporting showing that Bill Clinton's Clinton Foundation received about $145 million in donations from individuals connected to Uranium One. This money, received during Hillary Clinton's stint as secretary of state, was not properly disclosed—something the Clinton Foundation has been forced to apologize for. Bill Clinton was also paid $500,000 for a speech in Moscow by a Kremlin-linked firm around the same time the deal was approved. He was close to the tycoon who built the company as well, and may have helped him to secure a contract in Kazakhstan in 2005.
Why are we talking about it now?
This month, the Hill brought the deal back into the spotlight with a report that while the government was vetting the deal, Russia was spending millions on bribes to build its uranium footprint in the US. A key figure at Rosatom was reportedly under investigation for this at the time. Supposedly some of that money might have been laundered into Clinton interests. And a Russian spy ring was apparently trying to influence Hillary Clinton's inner circle. The implication for Trumpian conspiracists is that Hillary Clinton or others in the Obama administration hushed up this investigation to advance the deal. The new probes into the deal are in large part an attempt, Republicans say, to figure out how much those approving it knew about the FBI's case.
What's wrong with the right-wing narrative around this?
So far no one has found any evidence that any of the money the Clintons received was sent in exchange for Hillary's approval. Maybe more importantly, even if the mining company had explicitly paid her off, that almost certainly would not have affected the deal. Although Trump supporters make it sound like she had sole authority to approve or kill it, her State Department was just one of nine agencies on the Committee on Foreign Investment in the United States (CFIUS) charged with vetting the deal, and was not even the lead agency on the body. Clinton did not represent her agency on CFIUS, and both she and her proxy at the time say she was never even involved in this approval process.
"If the Secretary of State was throwing their weight around on a deal that never hit their desk," said Max Bergmann, a former State Department staffer and Russo-American affairs expert, "it would be a big deal and other agencies would push back."
Additionally, CFIUS was not the only body that had a say in the deal. It was also vetted by the Nuclear Regulatory Commission. Barack Obama, not Clinton, had the final yea or nay vote. No accounts of the far right Uranium One narrative, said Oliver, offer a clear narrative for how she would have controlled the process.
The deal likely slid through easily because while uranium sounds scary, it was minor issue. The American uranium mines in question aren't of a high quality, and while their facilities could produce 20 percent of America's uranium, they haven't done so for years. The American mines were likely incidental to the deal; Russia was likely more interested in Uranium One's massive Kazakhstani mines.
After all, as Bergmann and nonproliferation expert Jeffrey Lewis told me, the American mines didn't offer them any new tech. Nor could Rosatom export the uranium they dug up. Some of it is sent to Canada for processing but comes back to serve US power plants; the uranium in question is not weapons-grade. Four-fifths of America's uranium is already imported, and the US has often in the past relied on Russia for such imports, so letting Rosatom control a slice of our mines without the power to sell any of what they get there elsewhere was not even remotely a security issue. The deal would only fail to fly now, Bergmann told me, because of new sanctions on Russia in the wake of deteriorating relations between our two nations after the Russian invasion of Ukraine in 2014.
"This deal would have exactly the same national security impact as if the Russians had taken the money used in the purchase and set it on fire," said Lewis, clearly annoyed by this old tale.
Security concerns aside, the fact that the deal didn't draw more scrutiny while the FBI was reportedly investigating Russian chicanery within the uranium while it was being considered may seem odd. However, there is no proof yet that this mischief was directly related to the merger. If it was and the FBI did not alert relevant decision-making bodies, then that's on the investigators or the Department of Justice's CFIUS representative, notes Bergmann, not on Hillary Clinton. "If the investigators had warned CFIUS that they thought there was something nefarious about the company," he added, "that would likely have been a major factor in their decision-making."
Finally, the overarching narrative of Clinton as a Russian stooge makes no sense whatsoever. Her campaign was hacked by the Russians in 2016. The US intelligence community has resoundingly concluded that Russian election influence worked against her, and for Trump, likely because Putin harbors a grudge against Hillary.
Oliver notes that even if this FBI wrinkle, which is still very murky, doesn't involve Clinton, it could be used to discredit the FBI and its Trump-linked investigations, though.
So why is Trump bringing up this nonsense?
These allegations don't really seem to need to be credible, nor could they likely eventually result in charges against anyone. Hillary Clinton has become a bogeywoman for many Trump supporters, notes Oliver, who readily believe she has sinister motives and extraordinary powers. She's also an easy, intensely unpopular target. So a good chunk of America might believe that she was corrupt and powerful enough to push through a deal in Russia's interests. And if people are talking about that, they're presumably not talking about the accusations against Trump's campaign or the growing investigation into them.
That is the likely purpose of the White House and Fox News's seemingly coordinated campaign to turn the dossier and the uranium deal into top stories—it's a distraction intended to give government officials and right-wing pundits alike an opportunity to counter Clinton, the FBI, the Democrats, and the whole idea that Trump is in trouble.
"I can't remember something that had this much disinformation that was actively being promoted by an administration and a major news organization together," said Oliver.
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