Breaking down the Russian uranium deal hanging over Hillary Clinton’s campaign

Bill Clinton looms behind mining financier Frank Giustra—and his wife’s campaign.
Bill Clinton looms behind mining financier Frank Giustra—and his wife’s campaign.
Image: AP Photo/Frank Franklin II
We may earn a commission from links on this page.

It’s time for political scandal season to begin in the US, and one of our first entries involves Russia, the global uranium market, and Bill and Hillary Clinton.

What are the allegations?

You can pay Bill to get to Hillary. In 2010, then-US secretary of state Hillary Clinton was part of a US government committee that approves foreign purchases of US assets. She signed off on a deal that allowed Russia’s atomic energy agency to purchase Uranium One, a mining company behind one-fifth of US uranium production. Since 2005, investors in the mining concern, and specifically a financier named Frank Giustra, gave tens of millions to the Clinton Global Foundation, and in 2010, while the committee was considering the deal, a Russian investment bank paid Bill Clinton $500,000 for a speech.

What’s new?

Failure to disclose. The Clinton Global Foundation had not previously disclosed $2.35 million donations from the Canadian chairman of Uranium One between 2009 and 2013, as Russia’s energy agency negotiated first a minority stake and eventually majority ownership of the company. This is despite an agreement with the Obama administration to disclose foreign donations.

Is there an innocent explanation?

Yes. In 2010, the US was still pushing for a “reset” of its relationship with Russia, and allowing this kind of investment is one way to reduce tensions. As the energy deal was progressing, Russia agreed to support increased sanctions on Iran to stop nuclear proliferation. The foreign investment committee had eight other members besides Clinton, including its chair, then-Treasury Secretary Tim Geithner, then-Defense Secretary Bob Gates and then-Energy Secretary Steven Chu. Update: Brian Fallon, Clinton’s press secretary, further disputes pay-to-play narrative.

So what’s the scandal?

Crappy disclosure and enforcement. Whether or not anyone can prove that donations to Bill Clinton and the family foundation actually influenced Hillary Clinton’s role in approving this deal, the real scandal (repeat after me) is always what’s legal: We’ve already seen how secretary of state Clinton elided FOIA requests by using her own e-mail server. Clinton said she ”opted for convenience to use my personal email account, which was allowed by the State Department, because I thought it would be easier to carry just one device for my work and for my personal emails instead of two.”

The notion that she failed to live up to the voluntary disclosure program that was supposed to dispel accusations of foreign influence on her husband while she was secretary of state is ethically questionable, regardless of legality.

Putting aside the question of the Clintons’ ethics, there’s a larger and more worrisome national security concern: Despite the Nuclear Regulatory Commission’s assertion that uranium from the mine can’t leave the US without its license, it has been shipped to Canada for refining under another company’s aegis, and 25% of it ends up outside the US.

Is this a panic moment for the Clintons?

No. The trouble caused by Bill Clinton’s high-rolling ways in today’s story were also highlighted in 2008, in both cases by New York Times reporters. Republican candidate Rand Paul has been darkly warning of a Clinton scandal that will be revealed in a new book called Clinton Cash by conservative writer Peter Schweizer, but absent a smoking gun, file this scandal under “raises questions,” not “ends campaign.”