President Trump would prefer not to talk about special counsel Robert S. Mueller III’s investigation into possible collusion between Russia and his successful presidential campaign. Efforts to dodge questions on that investigation tend to break down into a few different categories, including dismissal of the “fake news” organizations covering the investigation, tweetstorms about topics far afield from the probe and now another tactic: the “real” Russia story.
That Russia story is a couple of years old. In April 2015, a New York Times investigation and timeline laid out an insanely complicated story about the U.S. government, the Clinton Foundation and foreign actors. At issue was the interest of a Russian energy concern, Rosatom, in the Canadian mining colossus that would come to be known as Uranium One, a company that held assets in the United States. Yet the transaction required the nod of the Committee on Foreign Investment in the United States (CFIUS), a sprawling multi-agency instrumentality that has a representative from the State Department, which Hillary Clinton led at the time.
Here’s where a possible conflict of interest entered the picture: “As the Russians gradually assumed control of Uranium One in three separate transactions from 2009 to 2013, Canadian records show, a flow of cash made its way to the Clinton Foundation,” wrote the New York Times. CFIUS approved Rosatom’s bid for majority ownership of Uranium One in October 2010.
The adjacencies weren’t tidy: As the New York Times put it, “The episode underscores the special ethical challenges presented by the Clinton Foundation, headed by a former president who relied heavily on foreign cash to accumulate $250 million in assets even as his wife helped steer American foreign policy as secretary of state, presiding over decisions with the potential to benefit the foundation’s donors.” Yet the newspaper conceded that it was “unknown” whether donations influenced actions.
Russians gained control of 20 percent of U.S. uranium production capacity through the deal. In Trump’s imprecise hands, however, the story took on a misleading and possibly mendacious aspect: “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,” said Trump in a February news conference. Not true: The decision, again, was not Clinton’s exclusive jurisdiction, as The Post’s Fact Checker noted.
In any case, the New York Times devoted two ace investigative reporters — Jo Becker and Mike McIntire — to the story. The project received a boost from materials gathered by Peter Schweizer, who has been a senior editor at large at Breitbart and is the author of “Clinton Cash.” Fox News used input from Becker for a piece on the uranium decision. Other media outlets ran followups, fact-checks, blog posts, the whole deal.
So you had the New York Times working with a Breitbart guy and Fox News. Which is to say that the investigation of Clinton’s cross-cutting duties and allegiances brought the media country together.
Despite the central involvement of the New York Times in breaking the story, Trump on Thursday told reporters, “I think that’s your Russia story. That’s your real Russia story. Not a story where they talk about collusion and there was none.
“It was a hoax. Your real Russia story is uranium. … The problem is that the mainstream media does not want to cover that story because that affects people that they protect. So they don’t like covering that story. But the big story is uranium and how Russia got 20 percent of our uranium. Frankly, it’s a disgrace. It’s a disgrace. And it’s a disgrace that the fake news won’t cover it. It’s so sad.”
Again: A mainstream media organization launched this story, which was then fanned and promoted and cheered by right-wing media outlets, as documented in a Harvard study on the matter.
Writing in the Hill on Tuesday, John Solomon and Alison Spann breathed new life to Trump’s Russia-media talking point. Boiled to its essentials, their story states that federal law enforcement officials were on to criminal schemes orchestrated by Russian nuclear industry officials in the United States. The timing mattered, according to the reporters: As early as 2009, notes the story, evidence began emerging that “Moscow had compromised an American uranium trucking firm with bribes and kickbacks in violation of the Foreign Corrupt Practices Act, FBI and court documents show.”
Things looked fishy, in other words. Just as the CFIUS was examining the uranium deal, the FBI was investigating the Russian nuclear energy officials for orchestrating illegal schemes. However, as the Hill piece discloses, “Multiple current and former government officials told The Hill they did not know whether the FBI or DOJ ever alerted [CFIUS] committee members to the criminal activity they uncovered.”
The Hill played up the story with a newsy headline: “FBI uncovered Russian bribery plot before Obama administration approved controversial nuclear deal with Moscow.” Yet the FBI’s early work on this case wasn’t a very well kept secret. The Wall Street Journal’s Joel Schectman in June 2015 did a comprehensive piece on this investigation under the headline, “Russian Uranium Probe Reaches Into Small-Town Ohio.” The investigation focused on Russian citizen Vadim Mikerin, an executive with the Russian energy outfit Tenex. Mikerin, U.S. law enforcement officials believed, was receiving kickbacks from U.S. transportation companies seeking contracts with Tenex. The FBI’s investigation of Mikerin, reported Schectman, began in 2007.
Another fascinating piece by Schectman — this one in April 2015 — showed that the goal of federal officials in the probe was to confront Mikerin with the evidence they’d gathered, and then flip him into “‘undercover cooperation’ against unspecified ‘high ranking government officials’ in Russia, according to a court motion.” It didn’t work. In a plea deal, Mikerin received a prison sentence of four years.
A conspiratorial tone sneaks into the Hill’s story, as it questions why the Justice Department didn’t make a bigger deal of its probe. “The Justice Department and FBI took little credit in 2014 when Mikerin, the Russian financier and the trucking firm executives were arrested and charged,” notes the story. More elliptical and suggestive language relates to another matter:
[Federal agents] also obtained an eyewitness account — backed by documents — indicating Russian nuclear officials had routed millions of dollars to the U.S. designed to benefit former President Bill Clinton’s charitable foundation during the time Secretary of State Hillary Clinton served on a government body that provided a favorable decision to Moscow, sources told The Hill.
Bolding inserted to highlight what-the-heck-are-you-talking-about language. Circa’s Sara A. Carter reported Thursday that Tenex paid consulting firm APCO Worldwide Inc. $3 million in 2010 and 2011 to lobby U.S. agencies. Starting in 2008, APCO provided pro bono services to the Clinton Global Initiative, an arm of the Clinton Foundation. “APCO’s work for Tenex and APCO’s work for the Clinton Global Initiative were separate and unconnected, publicly documented from the outset, and fully consistent with all regulations and US law,” the company told Circa.
Craig Minassian, a spokesman for the Clinton Foundation, tells the Erik Wemple Blog, “After all we now know about the extent of Russia’s interference in the election and how the Clinton Foundation was targeted by sophisticated disinformation campaigns, we should all hope news organizations would take an extra critical look at the motivations and sources for this story before throwing around allegations without offering evidence. In an environment where facts and reason are under assault, news organizations owe their audiences more than simply raising questions designed to ignite controversy.”
There’ll be lots more news on the uranium front. Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Chuck Grassley has begun investigating the Uranium One dealings. Stay tuned to “Hannity” for updates.