The Times has reported that people involved in a series of Canadian uranium-mining deals channelled money to the Clinton Foundation while the firm had business before the State Department. And, in one case, a Russian investment bank connected to the deals paid money to Bill Clinton personally, through a half-million-dollar speaker’s fee. There were a number of transactions involved, and corporate name changes, but, basically, a Canadian company known as Uranium One initially wanted American diplomats to defend its Kazakh uranium interests when a Russian firm, Rosatom, seemed about to make a move on them; and then, after the company decided to simply let Rosatom acquire it (through Rosatom’s alarmingly named subsidiary, ARMZ), Uranium One needed State Department approval. (The approval was necessary because Uranium One controlled American uranium mines and exploration fields, a strategic asset.)
The Times sums it up this way:
As the Russians gradually assumed control of Uranium One in three separate transactions from 2009 to 2013, Canadian records show, a flow of cash made its way to the Clinton Foundation. Uranium One’s chairman used his family foundation to make four donations totaling $2.35 million … Other people with ties to the company made donations as well.
The Times says that the donations were not properly disclosed—the paper confirmed them by looking at Canadian tax records. Complicating matters, Uranium One’s corporate forebear had acquired the Kazakh interests after its major shareholder, Frank Giustra, travelled with Bill Clinton to Kazakhstan in 2005 and met with the country’s leader. Giustra sold his interest in the company in 2007, according to the Times, and so was not involved in the ARMZ dealings. But Giustra has put tens of millions of dollars into the foundation’s work; the Clinton Giustra Enterprise Partnership, which bears his name, is a formal component of the Bill, Hillary, and Chelsea Clinton Foundation. And Ian Telfer, the Uranium One chairman, whose family foundation donated the $2.35 million dollars, said that it had done so because he wanted to support that coöperation: “Frank and I have been friends and business partners for almost 20 years.” He told the Wall Street Journal that he’d pledged the money in 2008, before the sale was on the table. Telfer also said that he’d never talked about uranium with Hillary Clinton. After the story came out, Giustra issued an angry statement, calling it baseless speculation and “an attempt to tear down Secretary Clinton and her presidential campaign.” He added a note of Canadian admonishment: “You are a great country. Don’t ruin it by letting those with political agendas take over your newspapers and your airwaves.”
Brian Fallon, a Clinton campaign spokesman, told the Times, “To suggest the State Department, under then-Secretary Clinton, exerted undue influence in the U.S. government’s review of the sale of Uranium One is utterly baseless.” There have been reports that other companies—Boeing, for example—gave money to the foundation while Clinton was Secretary of State and they had business before the department. The Uranium One story is more troubling, and potentially damaging, because of the personal ties, the foreign interests, the opacity, and the denouement, which involves Putin allies publicly gloating over Russia’s increased dominance of the world’s uranium supplies. The Times was tipped off to the story by a forthcoming book, “Clinton Cash,” by Peter Schweizer, which a Clinton campaign spokesman has called a “smear project.” The Clinton people and others argue that Schweizer has an expressly conservative agenda, visible in his previous work, and ties to Republican candidates. The Times’ public editor, Margaret Sullivan, addressing those concerns, said that, though she was troubled by the way the Times had described its relationship with Schweizer as “exclusive,” the paper had done its own reporting, and the story addressed valid questions about a Presidential candidate.
Here are five:
1. Was there a quid pro quo? Based on the Times reporting, there was certainly a lot of quid (millions in donations that made it to a Clinton charity; a half-million-dollar speaker’s fee) and multiple quos (American diplomatic intervention with the Russians; approvals when the Russian firm offered a very “generous” price for Uranium One). The Clinton perspective is that, although the approvals were delivered by the State Department when Clinton led it, there is no evidence that she personally delivered them, or of the “pro” in the equation. The Clinton campaign, in its response to the Times, noted that other agencies also had a voice in the approval process, and gave the Times a statement from someone on the approvals committee saying that Clinton hadn’t “intervened.” The Clinton spokesman wouldn’t comment on whether Clinton was briefed about the matter. She was cc’d on a cable that mentioned the request for diplomatic help, but if there is a note in which she follows up with a directive—an e-mail, say—the Times doesn’t seem to have it.
This speaks to some larger questions about political corruption. How do you prove it? Maybe the uranium people simply cared deeply about the undeniably good work the foundation is doing, and would have received the help and approvals anyway. In cases like this, though, how does the public maintain its trust? Doing so becomes harder when the money is less visible, which leads to the second question:
2. Did the Clintons meet their disclosure requirements? The Times writes, of the $2.35 million from Telfer’s family foundation, “Those contributions were not publicly disclosed by the Clintons, despite an agreement Mrs. Clinton had struck with the Obama White House to publicly identify all donors.” This is one of the more striking details in the story, because it seems so clear-cut that the donation ought to have been disclosed. Moreover, the Times says that the foundation did not explain the lapse. I also asked the foundation to explain its reasoning. The picture one is left with is convoluted and, in the end, more troubling than if the lapse had been a simple oversight. The legalisms can be confusing, so bear with me: the Clinton Foundation has several components, including the Clinton Global Initiative and—this is the key one—the Clinton Giustra Enterprise Partnership, formerly known as the Clinton Giustra Sustainable Growth Initiative. The memorandum of understanding makes it clear that the donor-disclosure requirement applies to each part of the foundation.
Craig Minassian, a Clinton Foundation spokesman, pointed out, though, that there are two legally separate but almost identically named entities: the Clinton Giustra Enterprise Partnership and the Clinton Giustra Enterprise Partnership (Canada). The second one is a Canadian charitable vehicle that Giustra set up—doing it this way helps Canadian donors get tax benefits. It also, to the foundation’s mind, obliterates the disclosure requirements. (There are also limits on what a Canadian charity is allowed to disclose.) Minassian added, “As complex as they may seem, these programs were set up to do philanthropic work with maximum impact, period. Critics will say what they want, but that doesn’t change the facts that these social enterprise programs are addressing poverty alleviation and other global challenges in innovative ways.” Minassian compared the Clinton Giustra Enterprise Partnership (Canada) to entirely independent nonprofits, like AmFAR or Malaria no More, which have their own donors and then give money to the foundation’s work.
This does not make a lot of sense unless you have an instinct for the most legalistic of legalisms. Unlike AmFAR, the Clinton Giustra Enterprise Partnership (Canada) has the Clinton name on it. Money given to the Canadian entity goes exclusively to the foundation. Per an agency agreement, all of its work is done by the foundation, too. The Web site that has the C.G.E.P. name on it also has the Clinton Foundation logo and Bill Clinton’s picture; it also has a copyright notice naming the Canadian entity as the site’s owner. Anyone visiting the site would be justifiably confused. They are, in other words, effectively intermingled.
And what would it mean if the Canadian explanation flew—that the Clintons could allow a foreign businessman to set up a foreign charity, bearing their name, through which people in other countries could make secret multi-million-dollar donations to their charity’s work? That structural opacity calls the Clintons’ claims about disclosure into question. If the memorandum of understanding indeed allowed for that, it was not as strong a document as the public was led to believe—it is precisely the sort of entanglement one would want to know about. (In that way, the Canadian charity presents some of the same transparency issues as a super PAC.) At the very least, it is a reckless use of the Clinton name, allowing others to trade on it.
3. Did the Clintons personally profit? In most stories about dubious foundation donors, the retort from Clinton supporters is that the only beneficiaries have been the world’s poorest people. This ignores the way vanity and influence are their own currencies—but it is an argument, and the foundation does some truly great work. In this case, though, Bill Clinton also accepted a five-hundred-thousand-dollar speaking fee for an event in Moscow, paid for by a Russian investment bank that had ties to the Kremlin. That was in June, 2010, the Times reports, “the same month Rosatom struck its deal for a majority stake in Uranium One”—a deal that the Russian bank was promoting and thus could profit from. Did Bill Clinton do anything to help after taking their money? The Times doesn’t know. But there is a bigger question: Why was Bill Clinton taking any money from a bank linked to the Kremlin while his wife was Secretary of State? In a separate story, breaking down some of the hundred million dollars in speaking fees that Bill Clinton has collected, the Washington Post notes, “The multiple avenues through which the Clintons and their causes have accepted financial support have provided a variety of ways for wealthy interests in the United States and abroad to build friendly relations with a potential future president.”
4. Putting aside who got rich, did this series of uranium deals damage or compromise national security? That this is even a question is one reason the story is, so to speak, radioactive. According to the Times, “the sale gave the Russians control of one-fifth of all uranium production capacity in the United States.” Pravda has said that it makes Russia stronger. What that means, practically, is something that will probably be debated as the election proceeds.
5. Is this cherry-picking or low-hanging fruit? Put another way, how many more stories about the Clintons and money will there be before we make it to November, 2016? The optimistic view, if you support Hillary Clinton or are simply depressed by meretriciousness, is that the Times reporters combed the Schweizer book and that this story was the worst they found. The pessimistic view is that it was an obvious one to start with, for all the reasons above, and that some names that stand out less than Uranium One and ARMZ will lead to other stories. Are the Clintons correct in saying that there is an attack machine geared up to go after them? Of course. But why have they made it so easy?