Sec. of State Hillary Clinton's approval of a deal to transfer control of 20% of U.S. uranium deposits to a Russian company was a quid pro quo exchange for donations to the Clinton Foundation.
In the months leading up to the 2016 United States presidential election, stories abounded about the relationships between the Clinton Foundation and various foreign entities.
May 2015 saw the publication of a book called Clinton Cash: The Untold Story of How and Why Foreign Governments and Businesses Helped Make Bill and Hillary Rich, an exposé of alleged Clinton Foundation corruption written by Peter Schweizer, a former Hoover Institution fellow and editor-at-large at the right-wing media company Breitbart.
A chapter in the book suggests that the Clinton family and Russia each may have benefited from a “pay-for-play” scheme while Hillary Clinton was secretary of state, involving the transfer of U.S. uranium reserves to the new Russian owners of an international mining operation in exchange for $145 million in donations to the Clinton Foundation.
The mining company, Uranium One, was originally based in South Africa, but merged in 2007 with Canada-based UrAsia Energy. Shareholders there retained a controlling interest until 2010, when Russia’s nuclear agency, Rosatom, completed purchase of a 51% stake. Hillary Clinton played a part in the transaction insofar as it involved the transfer of ownership of a material deemed important to national security — uranium, amounting to one-fifth of U.S. reserves (a fraction re-estimated by the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) at closer to one-tenth of the United States’ uranium production capacity in 2017) — thus requiring the approval of the Committee on Foreign Investment in the United States (CFIUS), on which the U.S. Secretary of State sits.
During the same time frame that the acquisition took place, the Clinton Foundation accepted contributions from nine individuals associated with Uranium One totaling more than $100 million, Schweizer claimed in Clinton Cash. Among those who followed Schweizer in citing the transaction as an instance of alleged Clinton corruption was GOP presidential nominee Donald Trump, who said during a June 2016 speech in New York City:
Hillary Clinton’s State Department approved the transfer of 20% of America’s uranium holdings to Russia, while nine investors in the deal funneled $145 million to the Clinton Foundation.
An image circulating via social media during the final months of the presidential campaign asked the question, “So Hillary, if Russia is such a threat, why did you sell them 20% of our uranium? Are you a liar, or a traitor, or both?”
The Uranium One Deal Was Not Clinton’s to Veto or Approve
Among the ways these accusations stray from the facts is in attributing a power of veto or approval to Secretary Clinton that she simply did not have. Clinton was one of nine cabinet members and department heads that sit on the CFIUS, and the secretary of the treasury is its chairperson. CFIUS members are collectively charged with evaluating proposed foreign acquisitions for potential national security issues, then turning their findings over to the president. By law, the committee can’t veto a transaction; only the president can.
All nine federal agencies were required to approve the Uranium One transaction before it could go forward. According to The New York Times, Clinton may not have even directly participated in the decision. Then-Assistant Secretary of State Jose Fernandez, whose job it was to represent the State Dept. on CFIUS, said Clinton “never intervened” in committee matters. Clinton herself has said she wasn’t personally involved.
There Is No Evidence That Uranium Went to Russia
That a change of company ownership occurred doesn’t mean that 10 to 20 percent of America’s uranium literally went to Russia. Neither Uranium One nor ARMZ (Rosatom’s mining subsidiary) is licensed to export uranium from the U.S. to other countries.
Some exports did occur, however.
A 2015 letter from NRC official Mark Satorius to a member of Congress revealed that an unspecified amount of yellowcake (semi-processed) uranium was shipped from a Uranium One facility in Wyoming to Canada between 2012 and 2014 for conversion (additional processing to prepare it for enrichment). A portion of that uranium was subsequently shipped to enrichment plants in Europe.
The transfers to Canada were legal despite Uranium One’s not holding an export license because the NRC granted such a license to the company that transported it. The transfers to Europe were legal because they were approved by another agency, the U.S. Dept. of Energy. Satorius stressed that the transfers were subject to NRC oversight and all applicable safety and national security regulations:
Before issuing this license amendment to RSB Logistics Services — or any other export license or license amendment — the NRC must determine that the proposed export is not inimical to the common defense and security of the United States. Under existing NRC regulations, this means that any uranium proposed to be exported to any country for use in nuclear fuel would be subject to the Atomic Energy Act Section 123 agreement for peaceful nuclear cooperation between the U.S. and that other country and confirmed in case-specific, government-to government assurances for each export license. The receiving country is required to commit to use the material only for peaceful purposes (not for development of any nuclear explosive device), to maintain adequate physical protection, and not to retransfer the material to a third country or alter it in form or content without the prior consent of the U.S. The transfer of the U.S.-supplied uranium from Canada to Europe noted above also was subject to applicable Section 123 agreements.
Additionally, a small amount of that exported uranium was, in fact, sold to other countries. According to a 2 November 2017 article in The Hill, Uranium One officials acknowledged that approximately 25 percent of the yellowcake exported for conversion was subsequently sold via “book transfer” to customers in Western Europe and Asia (yellowcake being a fungible commodity, that doesn’t necessarily translate to a physical transfer of the product, however).
To date, there is no evidence that any of this uranium made its way to Russia. An NRC spokesman cited by FactCheck.org in October 2017 reaffirmed Satorius’s assurances that “the U.S. government has not authorized any country to re-transfer U.S. uranium to Russia.” NRC officials also say they’re unaware of any Uranium One exports from the U.S. to foreign countries since 2014.
The Timing of Most of the Clinton Foundation Donations Does Not Match
Of the $145 million allegedly contributed to the Clinton Foundation by Uranium One investors, the lion’s share — $131.3 million — came from a single donor, Frank Giustra, the company’s Canadian founder. But Giustra sold off his entire stake in the company in 2007, three years before the Russia deal and at least 18 months before Clinton became secretary of state.
Of the remaining individuals connected with Uranium One who donated to the Clinton Foundation, only one was found to have contributed during the same time frame that the deal was taking place, according to The New York Times — Ian Telfer (also a Canadian), the company’s chairman:
His donations through the Fernwood Foundation included $1 million reported in 2009, the year his company appealed to the American Embassy to help it keep its mines in Kazakhstan; $250,000 in 2010, the year the Russians sought majority control; as well as $600,000 in 2011 and $500,000 in 2012. Mr. Telfer said that his donations had nothing to do with his business dealings, and that he had never discussed Uranium One with Mr. or Mrs. Clinton. He said he had given the money because he wanted to support Mr. Giustra’s charitable endeavors with Mr. Clinton. “Frank and I have been friends and business partners for almost 20 years,” he said.
In addition to the Clinton Foundation donations, the New York Times also cited a $500,000 speaking fee paid to former president Bill Clinton by a Russian investment bank in June 2010, before the Uranium One deal was approved:
The $500,000 fee — among Mr. Clinton’s highest — was paid by Renaissance Capital, a Russian investment bank with ties to the Kremlin that has invited world leaders, including Tony Blair, the former British prime minister, to speak at its investor conferences.
Renaissance Capital analysts talked up Uranium One’s stock, assigning it a “buy” rating and saying in a July 2010 research report that it was “the best play” in the uranium markets.
The timing of Telfer’s Clinton Foundation donations and Bill Clinton’s Renaissance Capital speaking fee might be questionable if there was reason to believe that Hillary Clinton was instrumental in the approval of the deal with Russia, but all the evidence points to the contrary — that Clinton did not play a pivotal role, and, in fact, may not have played any role at all. Moreover, neither Clinton nor her department possessed sole power of approval over said transaction.
Foundation Admits to Disclosure Mistakes
One fault investigations into the Clinton Foundation’s practices did find was that not all of the donations were properly disclosed — specifically, those of Uranium One Chairman Ian Telfer between 2009 and 2012. The foundation admitted this shortcoming and pledged to correct it, but as the Guardian pointed out in its May 2015 discussion of Clinton Cash, the fact that it happened is reason enough to sound alarm bells:
It is also true that large donations to the foundation from the chairman of Uranium One, Ian Telfer, at around the time of the Russian purchase of the company and while Hillary Clinton was secretary of state, were never disclosed to the public. The multimillion sums were channeled through a subsidiary of the Clinton Foundation, CGSCI, which did not reveal its individual donors.
Such awkward collisions between Bill’s fundraising activities and Hillary’s public service have raised concerns not just among those who might be dismissed as part of a vast right-wing conspiracy.
An enormous volume of interest and speculation surrounds the workings of the Clinton Foundation, which is to be expected. Given the enormous sums of money it controls and the fact that it is run by a former U.S. president who is married to a former U.S. secretary of state and presidential candidate, the foundation deserves all the scrutiny it gets, and more.
At the same time, for the sake of accuracy it’s crucial to differentiate between partisan accusations and what we actually know about it — however little that may be.
On 17 October 2017, The Hill reported obtaining evidence that Vadim Mikerin, a Russian official who oversaw the American operations of the Russian nuclear agency Rosatom, was being investigated for corruption by multiple U.S. agencies while the Uranium One deal was up for approval — information that apparently was not shared with U.S. officials involved in approving the transaction. The Hill also reported receiving documents and eyewitness testimony “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,” although no specifics about who those Russian nuclear officials were or how the money was allegedly routed to the Clinton Foundation were given. In any case, none of these revelations prove that Secretary of State Hillary Clinton participated in a quid pro quo agreement to accept payment for approval of the Uranium One deal.
On 24 October 2017, the U.S. House intelligence and oversight committees announced the launch of a joint investigation into the circumstances surrounding the Russian purchase of Uranium One.
Updated [17 October 2017]: Added synopsis of new reportage by The Hill.
Updated [1 November 2017]: Added clarifications, more sources, and the announcement of a congressional investigation.
Correction [16 November 2017]: Previous versions of this article incorrectly stated that no Uranium One-produced uranium had been exported to foreign countries.