President Trump says Russia's 2010 acquisition of American uranium, approved by Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and eight other agency heads, is “Watergate, modern-age.”
“This is equivalent to what the Rosenbergs did, and those people got the chair,” former White House adviser Sebastian Gorka said on Sean Hannity's Fox News show Thursday night.
Hannity has dubbed the uranium deal “the biggest scandal — or, at least, one of them — in American history.”
Counselor to the president Kellyanne Conway said on CNN Friday morning that “it's exactly what people hate about corruption and politicians and the swamp.”
“Scandal,” “corruption,” “Watergate,” “the chair”: The atmosphere on Planet Trump is thick with strong language. It's a testament to the president's determination to always be on offense. They don't just want to play defense against reporting on the congressional and law-enforcement investigations of Russian election meddling and possible coordination with the Trump campaign. The president and his allies seem to have resolved to portray Clinton as something worse than a politician willing to accept help from a foreign power.
In the pro-Trump narrative, Clinton is a traitor, guilty of “selling out national security,” as Hannity put it Thursday night.
The argument relies on spectacular oversimplification.
Here's how Conway presented the facts on CNN: “You have one spouse giving a half-a-million-dollar speech, you have another one as the secretary of state, you have folks trying to get advantage while she's secretary of state and then, voilà, 20 percent of the U.S. uranium rights go to a Russian interest. That's not difficult for people to understand.”
The speech-giving spouse here is former president Bill Clinton, who accepted $500,000 to address a Moscow bank with ties to the Kremlin in 2010.
The secretary-of-state spouse is, of course, Hillary Clinton.
The “folks trying to get advantage while she's secretary of state” are Russians who donated millions of dollars to the Clinton Foundation.
And the bit about “U.S. uranium rights [going] to a Russian interest” refers to the acquisition I mentioned at the top — a 2010 deal in which Russia's atomic energy agency was permitted by the Obama administration to purchase a majority stake in a Canadian firm that controlled one-fifth of the uranium mining capacity in the United States.
What Conway did on CNN — what all of Team Trump is doing right now — is combine two questionable things.
Thing one: Speaking fees and charitable donations accepted by the Clintons over the years created apparent conflicts of interest. This was a legitimate issue throughout the 2016 campaign. That's why The Washington Post embarked on a massive “effort to identify every known donor who contributed to support Bill and Hillary Clinton over their four decades in public life” and published the findings in November 2015.
Thing two: According to recent reporting by the Hill, the 2010 uranium deal was approved while the FBI was investigating a Kremlin plot to grow Russia's influence in the United States' nuclear industry through illegal business practices. The revelation that an FBI investigation was ongoing makes the wisdom of approving the deal even more debatable than it already was.
Based on known facts, the connection between these two things just isn't very strong. There is no evidence that Hillary Clinton and her fellow decision-makers on the uranium deal ignored the FBI probe, which was still several years from completion. On the contrary, House Republicans reviewing the matter said this week that they will try to find out why key officials were not made aware of the investigation.
There can be little doubt that Russians who donated to the Clinton Foundation were trying to curry favor with the secretary of state, but Hillary Clinton was just one of nine government agency heads, including the secretaries of defense and homeland security, who signed off on the deal. The consensus opinion was that the deal did not pose a national security threat.
Critics are free to second-guess the conclusion, but the fact that every other involved agency made the same determination as Clinton's State Department undercuts the notion that her vote was bought — unless, of course, everybody was in Russia's pocket.
That really would be one of the biggest scandals in U.S. history.