The intensification of Robert Mueller’s investigation into the Trump campaign’s potential collusion with Russia — as the first indictments were handed down for President Donald Trump’s former campaign chairman Paul Manafort and former business associate Rick Gates — has triggered an impassioned counter-narrative from the right. The reaction is seemingly coordinated, with similar arguments against Mueller appearing in the Wall Street Journal, the New York Post, Fox News, and Trump’s Twitter feed.
It’s all nonsense.
The purpose of the narrative is not accuracy but distraction. It’s a series of complex, interlocking claims with little connection to reality. But it’s the best the right can come up with to discredit Mueller and the outcome of his investigation.
If you spend any time on Twitter or Facebook, you’ll see these claims being made over and over again in the days ahead. This guide will help you make sense of the noise.
The Uranium One scandal refers to the 2010 sale of a controlling interest in Uranium One, a Canadian mining company, to Rosatom, a state-owned Russian corporation. Since the sale involved control of 20 percent of uranium reserves in the United States it required approval from the U.S. government.
The claim here is that Hillary Clinton, who was the Secretary of State at the time, approved the sale of Uranium One to Rosatom in exchange for $145 million in donations from Uranium One investors to the Clinton Foundation.
Here’s the truth: Hillary Clinton lacked the power to approve the sale, nearly all of the donations came from people who already divested in Uranium One, and the mines themselves have little strategic importance.
Clinton could not have approved or vetoed the sale.
In reality, Clinton had no ability to approve or reject the sale. Clinton’s involvement was as one of nine cabinet members of the Committee on Foreign Investment in the United States (CFIUS). The role of CFIUS is to review transactions and present their finding to the president. Only the president can decide to block a sale for national security reasons.
In this case, none of the members of the committee objected to the sale of Uranium One, and President Barack Obama did not block it. The theory that Clinton was bought off through donations to the Clinton Foundation doesn’t explain the actions of the other eight members of the committee or the president.
Theoretically, Clinton could have discussed her views on the sale and lobbied other members. In reality, Clinton had no personal involvement in the sale or with CFIUS. She delegated her role on the committee to Assistant Secretary of State Jose Fernandez, who says Clinton never intervened on Uranium One or any other committee matters.
The timing of the donations to the Clinton Foundation don’t match up.
If you watch Fox News, you’ll hear that Uranium One investors donated $145 million to the Clinton Foundation. Almost all of that money, $131 million, came from Frank Giustra, who divested his stake in the company in 2007, three years before the sale at issue. Giustra did not stand to benefit from the sale.
Only one person associated with Uranium One, Ian Telfer, actually gave money ($1.25 million) to the Clinton Foundation during the window of time after Hillary Clinton became Secretary of State and before the Uranium One deal was approved. These funds from Telfer represent 0.8 percent of the total donations that are typically included in discussions of the scandal. There’s no evidence that Clinton had any role in the deal’s approval, and much less that Telfer’s relatively small donation influenced her role.
The sale did not have national security implications.
The sale of uranium mines to a state-owned Russian company sounds scandalous because uranium is used to make nuclear weapons.
But the U.S. mines owned by Uranium One do not contain quality uranium and are barely used; the Russians were interested in Uranium One largely for productive Uranium mines in Kazakhstan. So while many discussions of the supposed Uranium One scandal claim Russia obtained 20 percent of the American uranium supply, in reality, it’s closer to zero.
Even if Russians ultimately decided to operate the mines, they are not able to export the uranium. It could only be sold to U.S. nuclear power plants.
The sale “had as much of an impact on national security as it would have if they set the money on fire,” said Jeffrey Lewis, a nuclear non-proliferation expert at the Middlebury Institute.
Overall, the United States produces about 2 million pounds of uranium each year and imports 57 million pounds from other countries.
Interest was renewed in the supposed scandal thanks to a single, anonymously sourced article.
The Uranium One “scandal” was first introduced to the public in April 2016. There is a chapter devoted to it in the book Clinton Cash by Peter Schweitzer; this book was based on research by the Government Accountability Institute, which is a project of Breitbart’s Steve Bannon.
Since then, public interest in the scandal had largely waned. Then, on October 17, in an article bylined by John Solomon and Alison Spann, The Hill revived the controversy by reporting that “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.”
This is a carefully worded paragraph that seems to be very significant, but that has little real meaning.
Spann and Solomon — the latter of whom previously worked for right-wing outlets like the Washington Times and Sinclair Broadcasting — provide no other backing for the core claim that Russian money was intended “to benefit former President Bill Clinton’s charitable foundation.” Only near the end of the article do they reveal that the “millions of dollars,” according to their own reporting, was not donated to the Clinton Foundation but went “to an American entity that had provided assistance to Bill Clinton’s foundation.” Nor do they ever claim there was a Russian effort to influence the CFIUS.
Moreover, there is no suggestion that Hillary Clinton knew about the FBI’s investigation at the time CFIUS considered the Uranium One sale.
The article largely rehashes an unrelated case in which Russian officials gave no-bid contracts to an American trucking company transporting uranium in exchange for kickbacks. That case was publicly resolved through a plea agreement in 2015.
Nevertheless, The Hill article was sufficient to set off a frenzy of renewed coverage on Uranium One.
The Steele Dossier
Christopher Steele, a former British intelligence agent, was contracted by an American research firm, Fusion GPS, to investigation Donald Trump’s connections to Russia. Steele eventually produced a dossier alleging that the Russians possessed compromising material on Trump and that various members Trump’s campaign colluded with Russians during the election. Some of the sources Steele consulted to construct the resume were Russian, including a former Russian intelligence officer.
Last week, it was revealed that the Clinton campaign and the DNC helped finance the research, which was actually initiated by a conservative publication, The Free Beacon. (Mother Jones reported that “a client allied with Democrats” helped finance the research last October, so the report was not a huge surprise.)
Trump and others claim that the Clinton campaign paid Fusion GPS $12 million for work on the dossier. This is false. That sum represents the total amount the campaign paid to its law firm, Perkins Coie, which subcontracted the Fusion GPS work.
Trump and other Republicans allege this is proof that it was Hillary Clinton, not Trump, that colluded with Russia. According to Republicans, this proves that the investigation into potential Trump campaign collusion with Russia is simply a political witch hunt.
Here’s the truth: Russia was actively trying to undermine the Clinton campaign who didn’t and couldn’t have colluded with Russia. And the Steele dossier was not produced with the cooperation of the Russian government.
The Russians were trying to help Trump, not Clinton.
The Clinton campaign could not have colluded with Russia because they were working toward opposite goals. The Russian government was trying to undermine Clinton’s campaign and help Donald Trump. This was the assessment of the United States intelligence community, which released a report in January that concluded:
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.
The Russian government, according to the U.S. intelligence committee, hacked DNC and Clinton campaign email and then coordinated with Wikileaks to publish the emails to maximize damage to the Clinton campaign.
Investigating collusion is not collusion.
As part of his research, Steele talked to people in Russia, including a former Russian intelligence officer, about the connections between Trump and Russia. This does not constitute collusion with the Russian government. There is no evidence the Russian government was involved in creating the dossier or sought to assist in its creation.
Calls for Mueller to resign
Various right-wing voices have called for Mueller’s resignation for a variety of reasons, inventing conflicts of interest that they claim compel him to step down. None of them make much sense.
Here’s the truth: The FBI itself is not under investigation, and the bureau’s investigation into the Trump campaign is not dependent on the Steele dossier.
Mueller’s investigation is not based on the dossier.
Some Republicans are calling for Mueller’s investigation to be shut down because it is based on the Steele dossier. But the investigation into whether the Trump campaign colluded with Russia did not start with Mueller — it started with the FBI in July 2016. The FBI did not launch its investigation based on the dossier. Steele began to assemble the dossier around the same time that the investigation began.
After Trump fired FBI Director James Comey in an effort to end the Russia investigation, Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein appointed Mueller to take over the investigation.
Mueller is reportedly examining the document as part of his investigation. Several key claims in the dossier have already been independently confirmed.
Mueller’s investigation does not include the FBI.
The Wall Street Journal editorial page argues that because the FBI allegedly considered continuing to pay for Steele to investigate Trump, the FBI must be part of Mueller’s investigation. Because Robert Mueller has previously worked with James Comey and run the FBI, the Wall Street Journal argues he “lacks the critical distance” to investigate the FBI and must step down.
It’s unclear why it would have been inappropriate for the FBI to work with Steele, who is an experienced and respected intelligence professional. One can argue that the FBI shouldn’t have considered contracting with Steele, but there was nothing illegal about it.
Mueller, however, is investigating whether the Trump campaign colluded with Russia and any related crimes. There is no reason for Mueller to investigate the FBI or James Comey.
Having invented an imperative to investigate the FBI, the Wall Street Journal then invents a conflict which it claims requires him to resign.
Others, including Fox News, are suggesting that Mueller should resign because he was in charge of the FBI when they investigated the kickback scheme between Russian officials and the trucking company that was linked to Uranium One by the recent report in The Hill. Why, exactly, this would require Mueller’s resignation as special counsel is unclear and unexplained.