As a service to readers bound to be confused by an increasingly complex story, here’s a brief guide to the latest developments in the tangled allegations involving Russia, President Trump and Hillary Clinton.
The memos are written as raw intelligence, based on interviews Steele had with unidentified Russian sources (identified, for instance, as “Kremlin insider”). Raw intelligence is essentially high-grade gossip, without the expectation it would be made public unless it is further verified.
The memos, among other things, allege the Russian government had been seeking to split the Western alliance by cultivating and supporting Trump and also gathering compromising information — “kompromat” — on him in an effort to blackmail him. The memos, among other allegations, claim the Russian government fed the Trump campaign “valuable intelligence” on Clinton.
Why It’s Important: The dossier mirrors a separate conclusion by U.S. intelligence agencies that the Russian government intervened in the U.S. election in an effort to bolster Trump and harm Clinton, such as through hacking the Democratic National Committee and distributing materials to WikiLeaks to publish at key moments. As the official declassified report stated:
“We assess Russian President Vladimir Putin ordered an influence campaign in 2016 aimed at the US presidential election. Russia’s goals were to undermine public faith in the US democratic process, denigrate Secretary Clinton, and harm her electability and potential presidency. We further assess Putin and the Russian Government developed a clear preference for President-elect Trump. We have high confidence in these judgments.”
Russian President Vladimir Putin intensely disliked Clinton because he was convinced that when she was secretary of state she had promoted anti-Putin, pro-democracy efforts in his country. The FBI considered the information gathered by Steele to be of sufficient importance that it considered paying him for his research, although it later dropped the idea.
What’s New: The DNC and Clinton campaign were revealed as the “Democratic donors” who paid Fusion GPS for Steele’s research. (Technically, Perkins Coie, the law firm of Marc Elias, an attorney representing the Clinton campaign and the DNC, funded the research.)
Separately, a “Republican donor” who had earlier hired Fusion GPS for information on Trump was revealed to be the Washington Free Beacon, a conservative website. But that earlier effort is unrelated to the Democratic-funded research that yielded the dossier, as Steele was hired by Fusion GPS after work for the Free Beacon had ended.
We should note that, in another assignment, Fusion had been hired by a U.S. law firm in early 2014 to assist on the defense against a civil action filed by the U.S. government alleging fraud by Prevezon Holdings. Prevezon is owned by Denis Katsyv, the son of a senior Russian government official.
Why is that relevant? Natalia Veselnitskaya, who was also working for the law firm on the Prevezon case, met with Trump campaign officials at the Trump Tower in June 2016, including Donald Trump Jr., campaign manager Paul Manafort and Jared Kushner, the husband of Ivanka Trump. Donald Trump Jr. agreed to meet with Veselnitskaya after an intermediary promised dirt on Clinton. She arrived with a memo containing talking points that had been previously shared by Yuri Chaika, Russia’s prosecutor general who is known as a master of kompromat.
What’s controversial: The Trump White House has tried to use the connection between the dossier and Clinton to claim that this shows that rather than Trump colluding with Russia, Clinton colluded with Russia. (The theory appears to be that because Steele was getting information from Russian officials in part with funds provided by the Clinton campaign, the Russians were helping Clinton.)
But that ignores the fact that DNC emails — as well as the email account of the Clinton campaign chairman — were hacked and then published by WikiLeaks as part of the pro-Trump Russian operation identified by U.S. intelligence agencies. (Wikileaks denies it received the material from Russia.) Indeed, the Wall Street Journal reported that a prominent Trump donor and the chief executive of a data-analytics firm working for Trump’s presidential campaign in August 2016 discussed how to better organize the Clinton-related emails being released by Wikileaks in order to leverage their impact.
Steele started producing his memos in June 2016, about the same time that intelligence agencies began investigating possible ties between Russia and people close to Trump. The connection between Steele’s research and official government investigations is murky, but for some Republicans it raises questions about whether the official probe begun in the Obama administration was influenced by information gathered by someone being paid by Democrats.
CNN, for instance, reported that the FBI used information in the Steele memos to obtain approval from the secret court that oversees the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act (FISA) to monitor the communications of Carter Page, who Trump had said was a key adviser on national security issues. Presumably, the FBI had verified the information before it could cite it in court. Steele had quoted an “ethnic Russian close associate” of Trump as saying Page was an intermediary in “a well-developed conspiracy of co-operation” between the Trump campaign and the Russian leadership. Page has adamantly denied any wrongdoing.
Steele, during the campaign, at Fusion’s direction also briefed reporters from some U.S. news organizations, including The Washington Post, on his findings, according to court filings. Only one publication, Mother Jones, published information based on the briefing before the election.
The Uranium deal
Background: In 2010, Rosatom, the Russian nuclear energy agency, acquired a controlling stake in Uranium One, a Canadian-based company that had mining licenses at the time for about 20 percent of U.S. uranium extraction capacity. (Note: actual production is currently only about two percent — and the United States as a whole extracts relatively little uranium.) The agreement was approved by the Obama administration when Clinton was secretary of state.
Frank Giustra, a Canadian mining financier and a major contributor to the Clinton Foundation, had sold a company, UrAsia, to Uranium One in 2007. Individuals related to Uranium One and UrAsia, including Giustra, donated to the Clinton Foundation, totaling about $145 million, though most of the donations took place before and during her 2008 presidential run. Meanwhile, in 2010, Bill Clinton received $500,000 from a Russian bank to give a speech at a conference in Moscow.
Trump, during the campaign, tossed all of these separate facts together to falsely claim that Clinton “gave 20 percent of our uranium — gave Russia for a big payment.” But numerous fact checks have found no evidence for this claim. The original suggestion of wrongdoing was first raised in a book underwritten by an organization headed by Stephen K. Bannon, a key adviser to Trump.
Why It’s Important: Whenever news about the Russia investigation heats up, the Trump White House cites the uranium deal in an effort to muddy the waters and suggest that Russia had gained something from Clinton in exchange for money. Trump himself has claimed the case is “Watergate, modern age.”
But there is no evidence Clinton even was informed about this deal. The Treasury Department was the key agency that headed the Committee on Foreign Investment in the United States which approved the investment; Clinton did not participate in the CFIUS decision. The deal was also approved by the Nuclear Regulatory Commission. Ultimately, only the president could have blocked or suspended the arrangement.
Moreover, no uranium produced at Uranium One’s U.S. mines may be exported, except for some uranium yellowcake which is extracted and processed in Canada before being returned to the United States for use in nuclear power plants.
[Update, Nov. 2: 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.]
What’s New: The Hill newspaper on Oct. 22 reported the FBI had gathered evidence at the time of the sale that a Russian Rosatom official had conducted a massive bribery scheme, compromising an American trucking company that shipped uranium for Russia. The official eventually was convicted in 2015, but Republicans have said the case should have raised alarms about the Rosatom investment in Uranium One and possibly blocked the deal. But there is no evidence that U.S. officials weighing the transaction knew about the FBI investigation.
The reporting prompted House Republicans to announce they would launch an investigation. With the apparent urging of President Trump, the Justice Department gave a former FBI informant in the case approval to testify before Congress. The informant’s lawyer claimed he would discuss his work “uncovering the Russian nuclear bribery case and the efforts he witnessed by Moscow to gain influence with [former president Bill Clinton and Secretary of State Hillary Clinton] in hopes of winning favorable uranium decisions from the Obama administration.”
[Update, March 8, 2018: In an interview, the witness provided “no evidence” that former secretary of state Hillary Clinton was involved in the process, according to a memo released by Democratic staff on the committee.]
What’s controversial: Any suggestion that Russian money was directed to influence Clinton’s decisions would be explosive. But the fatal flaw in this allegation is Hillary Clinton, by all accounts, did not participate in any discussions regarding the Uranium One sale which — as we noted — does not actually result in the removal of uranium from the United States.
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