Uranium One, the bizarre Clinton-Russia story lighting up right-wing news, explained

The conservative media sphere, fueled by an orchestrated White House public relations campaign, has a theory for the biggest legal and national security question facing Washington, and it has nothing to do with the Trump-Russia scandal.

Instead, it has to with a thoroughly debunked and verifiably false charge: that Hillary Clinton gave Russia “20 percent of our uranium” as secretary of state.

Trump made that claim early on in his time in office to defend himself against charges that he would be too soft on Russia. Now he and his allies have brought it back to muddy the waters during the roughest patch of his presidency.

Take New York Republican Rep. Peter King, who said last week that “it’s important we find out why that deal went through.” At the same press conference, House Republicans said the House Intelligence Committee and the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee would launch new probes into Clinton’s purported role in helping a Russian state-owned company, Rosatom, gain control of 20 percent of America’s uranium production capacity, a key part of any US effort to build nuclear weapons.

King was responding to a disputed report in the Hill newspaper, which reported on October 17 that the FBI had found evidence that a Russian official had used bribes to gain improper influence over an American company that handled uranium shipments bound for Russia. That, as the Washington Post summarized, has led conservatives to argue that “the case should have raised alarms about the Rosatom investment in Uranium One and possibly blocked the deal.”

Fox News in particular has taken up the conspiracy theory with gusto, with Fox & Friends, Sean Hannity, Tucker Carlson, and Martha MacCallum all running lengthy segments devoted to the story. Conservative radio darling Laura Ingraham tweeted out a link to an article about the supposed uranium scheme in the conservative National Review. The conservative Daily Caller website has run several articles on the subject, as has Breitbart, the right-wing outlet run by former Trump senior strategist Steve Bannon.

Trump himself has added new fuel by taking the highly unusual step of encouraging the Justice Department to allow a former FBI informant to testify about the case before Congress — a rare and nearly unprecedented act. The informant’s lawyer claimed, per the Post, that he would tell lawmakers about 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.”

There’s just one problem: The GOP claim that Clinton gave 20 percent of America’s uranium to Russia is incorrect and clearly misleading now, just as it was when Trump raised it in the past.

The key event that the myth is based on is Russia’s nuclear power agency purchasing a majority stake in a Toronto-based energy company between 2009 and 2013. The company had mines and land in a number of US states with huge uranium production capacity — a move the US State Department signed off on. But PolitiFact did a thorough fact-check of the claim last year when Trump first made it on the campaign trail, and found the following faults with it:

  • The mines, mills, and land the company holds in the US account for 20 percent of the US’s uranium production capacity, not actual produced uranium.
  • The State Department was one of nine federal agencies and a number of additional independent federal and state regulators that signed off on the deal.
  • President Barack Obama, not Clinton, was the only person who could’ve vetoed the deal.
  • Since Russia doesn’t have the legal right to export uranium from the US, its main goal was likely to gain access to the company’s uranium assets in Kazakhstan.
  • Crucially, the main national security concern was not about nuclear weapons proliferation, as Trump has suggested, but actually ensuring the US doesn’t have to depend too much on uranium sources from abroad, as the US only makes about 20 percent of the uranium it needs. An advantage in making nuclear weapons wasn’t the main issue because, as PolitiFact notes, “the United States and Russia had for years cooperated on that front, with Russia sending enriched fuel from decommissioned warheads to be used in American nuclear power plants in return for raw uranium.”
  • Trump’s misleading comments are in service of a broader goal: to push back against the growing investigations into his administration’s possible collusion with Moscow, which have hit a new fever pitch with news of Monday’s guilty plea from campaign adviser George Papadopoulos, who told the FBI that he’d met with a Russian-linked professor who said Russia had “dirt” on Clinton, including thousands of her stolen emails. Special counsel Robert Mueller unsealed the guilty plea yesterday alongside wide-ranging indictments of former Trump campaign manager Paul Manafort and campaign aide Rick Gates.

    There’s plenty of evidence that suggests Trump is obsessed with the Mueller probe to the point that he watched yesterday’s news obsessively and yelled at the TV. At this point, he would do nearly anything to distract people’s attention — including reviving a false and debunked claim about the uranium deal.