“She even handed over American uranium rights to the Russians.”
— voice-over in Trump campaign ad, “Corruption”
Hillary Clinton’s involvement with a Russian uranium deal has come under scrutiny since author and Breitbart News senior editor-at-large Peter Schweizer dedicated a chapter to the topic in his 2015 book, “Clinton Cash: The Untold Story of How and Why Foreign Governments and Businesses Helped Make Bill and Hillary Rich.”
The Trump campaign has been attacking Clinton over the uranium deal lately, perhaps as a way to distract attention from criticism of Trump’s interest in fostering a closer relationship with Russia. “Clinton Cash” was made into a graphic novel and a documentary, and on Oct. 20, makers of the graphic novel released an animated ad about the uranium deal. FactCheck.org and PolitiFact have covered the facts, and we wrote about the deal briefly in a speech roundup. But with the renewed attention this month, we decided to take a deeper look at Clinton’s role in this deal.
The Trump campaign pointed to an April 2015 New York Times article about this deal, based on a preview of “Clinton Cash.” The Times said it “scrutinized his [Schweizer’s] information and built upon it with its own reporting.”
The story starts with Frank Giustra, a Canadian mining financier and donor to the Clinton Foundation; Giustra’s company, UrAsia; and Uranium One, a uranium mining company headquartered in Toronto.
In 2007, Giustra sold UrAsia to Uranium One, which was based in South Africa and chaired by his friend, Ian Telfer. Giustra said he sold his personal stake in the deal in fall 2007, shortly after the merger with Uranium One, in the midst of Clinton’s 2008 presidential campaign and before Clinton realized Barack Obama would win the nomination and she would become his secretary of state.
In 2009, Russia’s nuclear energy agency, Rosatom, began buying shares in Uranium One as a part of a larger move to acquire mines around the world. Rosatom first bought a 17 percent share of Uranium One, which has holdings in the United States. In 2010, the Russians sought to increase their share to 51 percent. The Committee on Foreign Investment in the United States (CFIUS) and the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission approved the deal. In 2013, Russia assumed 100 percent ownership.
The deal gave Russia control of about 20 percent of U.S. uranium extraction capacity, according to a 2010 CNN article about the deal. In other words, Russia has rights to the uranium extracted at those sites, which represents 20 percent of the U.S. uranium production capacity.
The State Department was one of nine agencies comprising CFIUS, which vets potential national security impacts of transactions where a foreign government gains control of a U.S. company. It was established by Congress in 2007 after the controversy over the planned purchase of seaports by a company in United Arab Emirates. The other agencies were the departments of Treasury, Defense, Justice, Commerce, Energy and Homeland Security, and two White House agencies (Office of the U.S. Trade Representative and Office of Science and Technology Policy).
The CFIUS can approve a deal, but only the president can suspend or stop a transaction. If the committee can’t come to a consensus, a member can recommend a suspension or prohibition of the deal, and the president makes the call.
Due to confidentiality laws, there are few details made public about the deal or about Clinton’s role in it, factcheck.org found. The Clinton campaign said Clinton herself was not involved in the State Department’s review and did not direct the department to take any position on the sale of Uranium One. Matters of the CFIUS did not rise to the level of the secretary, the campaign said.
Jose Fernandez, then-assistant secretary of state for economic, energy and business affairs, sat on the committee. Fernandez told the Times: “Mrs. Clinton never intervened with me on any CFIUS matter.” Fernandez did not respond to our requests for comment.
“Hillary’s opposition [to the Uranium One deal] would have been enough under CFIUS rules to have the decision on the transaction kicked up to the president. That never happened,” Schweizer wrote in “Clinton Cash.”
At the time the sale was underway, the Obama administration was attempting to “reset” its relations with Russia, with Clinton leading the effort as secretary of state. But there is no evidence approval of the sale was connected to the reset policy. The national security concern that the United States faced when CFIUS considered the deal concerned American dependence on foreign uranium sources, the Times reported.
Yet the Uranium One deal was not on the radar of Michael McFaul, even though he was aware of many CFIUS cases in his role as the National Security Council’s senior director for Russian and Eurasian affairs from 2009 to 2012 (and as a prime architect of the administration’s reset policy). McFaul, now senior fellow at Stanford University’s Hoover Institution, said Fernandez could not “dictate the outcome of any decision single-handedly,” as he was one of nine members.
“Knowing how the CFIUS process works and how the bureaucracy at the State Department works, I cannot imagine that such an issue would be reviewed by the secretary of state. There is a hierarchy in place precisely to protect the secretary’s time for only the most important of issues and meetings,” McFaul said.
“I was not personally involved because that wasn’t something the secretary of state did,” Clinton told a New Hampshire TV station in June 2015.
Some Republican lawmakers in 2010 did raise concerns about the deal — but they sent their letter to then-Treasury Secretary Timothy F. Geithner. (Treasury chairs the CFIUS.) Final approval was given by the Nuclear Regulatory Commission, which noted that the mines would remain under the control of U.S. subsidiaries. “Neither Uranium One nor ARMZ [the Russian firm] holds an NRC export license, so no uranium produced at either facility may be exported,” the NRC said. (Some uranium yellowcake is extracted, processed in Canada and returned to the United States.)
[Update, Nov. 2, 2017: The Hill newspaper, citing documents, reported on Nov. 2 that some of the uranium from Uranium One facilities was exported to Europe. We had noted before that the uranium could not be exported, with the exception of yellowcake being shipped to Canada for conversion with the expectation it would be returned to the United States. But once Uranium One’s material arrived in Canada, it apparently was mixed with yellowcake from other suppliers – and then Canada received permission from the Energy Department to send converted U.S. uranium to Europe for enrichment. Uranium One says it sold about 25 percent of its U.S.-extracted yellowcake via “book transfer” to customers overseas—which does not necessarily mean the material moved because ownership in commodity markets is not the same as possession. U.S. officials say it is unknown whether any uranium extracted by Uranium One was transferred overseas.]
We asked the Trump campaign for evidence that Clinton or the State Department had more of a role in the deal than any of the eight other member agencies of CFIUS, and did not receive a response.
Quid pro quo claims
Did the Clintons get paid for the Russian deal? The Trump campaign pointed to donations to the Clinton Foundation, as reported by the Times. Giustra became friends with Bill Clinton in 2005, over their charity work. The Washington Post took an in-depth look at their ties and described their friendship as one “that has helped propel the Clinton Foundation into a global giant and established Giustra’s reputation as an international philanthropist while helping him build connections in countries where his business was expanding.”
Giustra eventually became one of the largest individual donors to the Clinton Foundation. His relationship with the Clintons came under scrutiny over donors to the Clinton Giustra Enterprise Partnership (Canada), which raises money for the similarly named Clinton Giustra Enterprise Partnership, one of the Clinton Foundation’s initiatives. (For more on this, read more about it here, here and here.)
Individuals related to Uranium One and UrAsia, including Giustra and Telfer, donated to the Clinton Foundation, totaling about $145 million. The Times reported that Telfer also donated to the Clinton Foundation using his family charity based in Canada. These were donations made to the Clinton Foundation, not directly to the Clintons.
As PolitiFact found, the majority of these donations were made before and during Clinton’s 2008 presidential run. So Trump’s claim that Hillary Clinton “gave [uranium to] Russia for a big payment” is not accurate. If she had actually become president, she would have had more power over the deal than as the head of one agency among nine represented on CFIUS.
The Trump campaign also noted that Bill Clinton received speaking fees while the Uranium One deal was underway. After the Russians announced that they would acquire stakes in Uranium One, and while the Kremlin was promoting the purchase, Bill Clinton received $500,000 in 2010 for a speech in Moscow from a Russian investment bank that had ties to the Kremlin. Putin personally thanked Clinton, the Wall Street Journal reported, adding that a review of Bill Clinton’s speeches “found no evidence that speaking fees were paid to the former president in exchange for any action by Mrs. Clinton.”
The Times also did not report a direct link between Bill Clinton and the deal. The bank’s analysts talked up Uranium One’s stock while the deal was under CFIUS consideration, and assigned it a “buy” rating. The bank “would not comment on the genesis of Mr. Clinton’s speech to an audience that included leading Russian officials, or on whether it was connected to the Rosatom deal,” the Times reported.
The Pinocchio Test
Trump and his campaign claim that Clinton “gave” or “handed over” 20 percent of American uranium rights to the Russians. Through the Uranium One deal, the Russian state-owned nuclear energy company does now have control over 20 percent of U.S. uranium extraction capacity. But it cannot export the uranium.
In 2010, the Committee on Foreign Investment in the United States approved the sale of the majority of the shares to the Russians. The State Department was one of nine agencies on the committee that approved the deal. The deal was also separately approved by the Nuclear Regulatory Commission.
There is no evidence Clinton herself got involved in the deal personally, and it is highly questionable that this deal even rose to the level of the secretary of state. Theoretically, as Schweizer says, Clinton could have intervened. But even then, it ultimately would have been Obama’s decision whether to suspend or block the deal.
We wavered between Three and Four Pinocchios. Trump so often uses broad-brushed language that pushes him into Four Pinocchio territory, and this is yet another one of those cases. He specifically names Hillary Clinton as the active agent in the Uranium One deal, saying she “gave them” or “handed over” uranium to the Russians, but that is not the case. Then, he further claimed the sale went forward in exchange “for a big payment.” There’s no evidence for that claim either.
Trump could have avoided so many Pinocchios had he been more careful with the language. For example: “Hillary Clinton’s State Department was one of nine agencies that approved the deal.” Words matter.
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