Former U.S. President Bill Clinton speaks during an event at the College of Southern Nevada in Las Vegas, Nevada, U.S. (Photographer: Patrick T. Fallon/Bloomberg)

Clinton Uranium 'Scandal' Doesn't Have Much Fuel

(Bloomberg View) -- Did Hillary Clinton cut a secret deal in 2010 to hand Russia 20 percent of the U.S.'s uranium deposits? Was Robert Mueller, then the FBI director and now running the investigation into Russian meddling in the presidential election, complicit? Has the New York Times confirmed it all?

Those questions were mostly just making the rounds of the right-wing media until this week, when the Justice Department announced it was going to "evaluate" requests by Republican members of Congress to investigate the woman President Donald Trump reflexively calls "Crooked Hillary."

But is there anything to the accusations? So far, there is little to back them up. And to understand it all, we'll have to take a brief dive into one of the clunkiest acronyms in bureaucratic history: CFIUS (pronounced sif-ee-us). Bear with me.

The Committee on Foreign Investment in the United States has been around for decades, but took its current form in 2007, after an outcry in Congress over the planned takeover of several U.S. ports by a company owned by the government of the United Arab Emirates.

It was a fun to-do about pretty much nothing, pitting the Republican leadership against Republican President George W. Bush and former Republican presidential candidate Bob Dole, who was lobbying for the Arabs. And, of course, the Clintons were involved -- with then-Senator Hillary vigorously opposed to the deal and ex-President Bill advising the Emiratis. In the end, Congress prevailed, and 22 U.S. facilities stayed out of foreign hands. (In a delicious irony, they eventually ended up owned by AIG, the insurance giant that did its best to destroy the global economy a year later. You couldn't make this stuff up.)

The mandate of CFIUS, which consists of a bevy of U.S. agencies under the direction of the Treasury secretary, is to look into the national-security implications when a foreign government looks to take over an American company. It doesn't actually have the power to quash deals; it can only recommend that the president do so.

If the Dubai Ports World deal was a game of checkers, the Clinton-uranium matter is 3-D chess. And, like so many things involving the former first couple, it centers on a shady character: Frank Giustra, a Canadian businessman who, among other things, founded the movie studio behind that delightful romp "American Psycho" and Michael Moore's conspiracy-mongering "Fahrenheit 9/11."

But for the most part, Giustra has been involved with two erratic entities: the mining industry and Bill Clinton. In 2007, he and the former president created the Clinton Giustra Sustainable Growth Initiative, which self-avowedly "has extensive experience in projects that organize market-driven activities to meet the private sector’s requirements for optimization of local supply chains," whatever that means. By 2006, Giustra had donated more than $30 million to the Clintons' charitable endeavors and pledged $100 million more.

The next year, Giustra sold his mining company, UrAsia, to a large Canadian uranium-mining firm called Uranium One. Soon after that, Russia's state-owned nuclear energy entity Rosatom began to swallow Uranium One piece by piece, and in 2010 proposed upping its stake to 51 percent. Because the company mines in the U.S., CFIUS got involved and gave the deal its blessing, as did the Nuclear Regulatory Commission. (Rosatom eventually bought the remaining 49 percent.)

As secretary of state, Hillary Clinton was officially part of the approval loop, but so far investigations by FactCheck.org and other media organizations have failed to discern whether she was personally involved, and during the presidential campaign a spokesman said she "never intervened" on any CFIUS matter (which, if true, actually seems oddly lax). In any case, what has ruffled feathers here is that by taking over Uranium One, the Russians took control of a substantial portion of America's proven uranium reserves -- 20 percent, according to Rosatom's chief executive.

And while this raises the specter of Russians making away with America's valuable and potentially apocalyptic uranium stores, consider a couple of facts: America accounts for a relative pittance of the world's uranium production, and it cannot be exported from the U.S. except under rare conditions and with a government-issued license. (It does appear that some of Uranium One's material may have been sent to Europe after being shipped to Canada and mixed with "yellowcake" uranium from other sources.)

The whole thing might easily have slipped under the radar were it not for another unlikely partnership, this one between a conservative muckraker named Peter Schweizer and the New York Times. In May 2015, days after Hillary Clinton made official her second attempt to win the presidency, Schweizer published "Clinton Cash," a brief book with lengthy imputations that the Clinton Foundation and the ex-president himself got rich by using Hillary Clinton's State Department to trade favors with foreign entities.

Given Schweizer's right-wing background -- he's now an editor at large for Breitbart News -- one might have expected the book to rile the Rush Limbaugh crowd but not crack mainstream consciousness. But the Times ensured that it did -- it got an advance copy of "Clinton Cash" and "scrutinized his information and built upon it with its own reporting." The result was a front-page story titled "Cash Flowed to Clinton Foundation Amid Russian Uranium Deal," and President Trump and his supporters are making hay of it to this very day.

He's done so in his inimitable way:

Donald J. Trump @realDonaldTrump
Why isn't the House Intelligence Committee looking into the Bill & Hillary deal that allowed big Uranium to go to Russia, Russian speech....
Twitter: Donald J. Trump on Twitter

And also at greater length in the tendentious press conference he held a month after taking office:

We had Hillary Clinton try and do a reset. We had Hillary Clinton give Russia 20 percent of the uranium in our country. You know what uranium is, right? This thing called nuclear weapons like lots of things are done with uranium including some bad things.

Nobody talks about that. I didn't do anything for Russia. I've done nothing for Russia. Hillary Clinton gave them 20 percent of our uranium.

The advantages to the president in hyping the story are obvious. It allows him not only to tar the candidate who topped him in the popular vote, but also to distract from the Russia issue on the front pages: Mueller's investigation into possible collusion between the Trump campaign and the Kremlin to swing the election his way. 

Things got kicked up an notch in mid-October, when the legislative news site the Hill ran a story claiming that before the Rosatom deal was approved, "the FBI had gathered substantial evidence that Russian nuclear industry officials were engaged in bribery, kickbacks, extortion and money laundering designed to grow Vladimir Putin’s atomic energy business inside the United States." Within a week, two House committees announced they would look into, as Intelligence Committee Chairman Devin Nunes put it, "whether or not there was an FBI investigation — was there a DOJ investigation — and if so, why was Congress not informed of this matter?"

All this seems a bit odd. The Hill isn't known for its investigative prowess. The sourcing on the story was, well -- "loose" would be a generous description: anonymous sources citing unnamed federal agents citing "a confidential U.S. witness working inside the Russian nuclear industry" who described a kickback scheme involving a U.S.-based uranium trucking company and a fuzzy "eyewitness account -- backed by documents" of a flood of millions into the coffers of the Clinton Foundation.

There is of course the possibility that more digging could release a motherlode of incriminating facts. But based on what we know so far, the whole uranium scandal is anything but a nuclear bombshell.

Nonetheless, the article proved very useful to the White House and congressional Republicans, not just because it brought a Clinton scandal back into the limelight, but also because it allowed the right to impugn Mueller, who was FBI director when the bureau chose not to investigate the kickback allegations. Even if the whole thing proves to be a nothingburger, these forces will have made progress in their campaign to force Mueller's ouster.

Or at least that's what it looked like until Tuesday, when an unexpected voice of caution piped up. In testimony before the House Judiciary committee, Attorney General Jeff Sessions threw a bit of cold water on the whole thing, saying that he wanted hard facts before taking the next step: "'Looks like' is not enough to appoint a special counsel."

He's right, of course, but "looks like" is plenty when it comes to fueling the ire of the America Firsters, conspiracy theorists and Hillary haters of both parties who take Trump's nickname for her very literally.

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.

Tobin Harshaw writes editorials on national security, education and food for Bloomberg View. He was an editor with the op-ed page of the New York Times and the paper's letters editor.

To contact the author of this story: Tobin Harshaw at tharshaw@bloomberg.net.

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