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Unravelling claim that Hillary Clinton sold 20% of US uranium to Russia

A meme posted on Facebook in South Africa claims Hillary Clinton, former US secretary of state, sold 20% of her country’s uranium to Russia. 

“Then the Russian government gave 145 million to The Clinton Foundation. What a coincidence,” it reads. The non-profit Clinton Foundation was established by former US president Bill Clinton, Hillary Clinton’s husband.  

Uranium is an energy source for nuclear power plants and nuclear bombs. Many countries declare uranium to be a “strategic” or “critical” commodity.

The meme also shows Bill Clinton with text saying “I’m a rapist”, a photo of former US president Barack Obama with the text “I said okey doke”, and a photo of Robert Mueller, former director of the FBI, with text saying “I delivered it”. 

The Facebook post is captioned “And they have the temerity to investigate Trump.” US President Donald Trump stood against Hillary Clinton in the 2016 presidential election. Mueller headed a probe into Russian meddling in the election and ties between Russia and Trump’s campaign.

According to fact-checkers at Politifact, the meme has been doing the rounds for years. They looked into a similar claim in 2018, which featured only Hillary Clinton and Mueller, and found it to be mostly false.

Here’s why.

Claim traced back to 2015 investigative book

Politifact traced the claim back to a 2015 book titled Clinton Cash: the Untold Story of How and Why Foreign Governments and Businesses Helped Make Bill and Hillary Rich.

The book looked into donations to the Clinton Foundation. One chapter accused the Clinton family of transferring uranium to Russia in exchange for a donation. An April 2015 New York Times article also documented the connections.

But it’s not that straightforward. 

In 2007, a Clinton Foundation donor, Frank Giustra, sold his company UrAsia to another company called Uranium One, giving up his personal shares in the process. Other shareholders retained a 60% stake in the new company.

Although Uranium One is based in Canada, it has mines, mills and land in the US. These make up 20% of the US’s uranium production capacity. But its actual production is a smaller share. In 2014 its output was 11% of the uranium produced in the US.

Russian purchase of stake needed approval

By June 2010, Russia’s nuclear agency, Rosatom, had acquired a 51% stake in Uranium One. But Russia needs a licence to export uranium outside the US, so, as noted, “it’s somewhat disingenuous to say this uranium is now Russia’s, to do with what it pleases”.

And the purchase had to be approved by several US agencies first, because it meant a foreign entity could take a majority stake in the uranium operation. These agencies included the Committee on Foreign Investments in the US (CFIUS). As secretary of state, Hillary Clinton was a member of this committee.

The committee approved Rosatom’s purchase. By 2013, Russia had assumed 100% ownership of Uranium One. The New York Times investigation suggested the deal was approved because the US was seeking to "reset" its relationship with Russia. Others said it was approved because at the end of the day, the deal wasn’t that big. 

Jeffrey Lewis, a nuclear nonproliferation expert, told Politifact that Russia’s purchase “had as much of an impact on national security as it would have if they set the money on fire”.

And the approval was not Clinton’s choice alone. The CFIUS panel also includes the attorney general and the secretaries of the treasury, defence, commerce, and energy departments. Moreover, Clinton alone did not have the power to reject or approve the deal. 

In a 2015 interview, Clinton said she was not personally involved. Her assistant secretary of state, Jose Fernandez, who represented the state department on the CFIUS panel, also told the New York Times that Clinton “never intervened” in CFIUS matters.    

Links have been exaggerated

What about the donations to the Clinton Foundation? 

Nine individuals associated with Uranium One donated money to the Clinton Foundation. But Politifact notes that most of the money - US$131 million - came from Giustra. And Giustra sold his personal stake in the company in 2007, three years before the Russia deal and 18 months before Clinton became secretary of state. 

Of the remaining individuals connected with Uranium One, the only person who donated money to the Clinton Foundation during the relevant time frame was investor Ian Telfer. According to the New York Times, he contributed between US$1.3 million and US$5.6 million to the foundation during and after the review process of the deal. 

Politifact says it isn’t wrong to question these links, but the claim that Clinton sold 20% of the US’ uranium to Russia in exchange for donations is exaggerated. 

FBI investigation into Uranium One

How was Robert Mueller involved? 

A 2017 report by US newspaper the Hill revealed that one of Rosatom’s main executives, Vadim Mikerin, was behind a plot involving kickbacks and bribes designed to grow Russian President Vladimir Putin’s atomic energy business in the US.

The plot was discovered by an undercover FBI agent, who had infiltrated Uranium One in 2009, a year before the deal was approved by the CFIUS. 

Mueller was then director of the FBI, so it could be assumed he knew about the investigation. But in the Hill article, assistant FBI director Ronald Hosko is quoted as saying he did not recall ever being briefed on the case.

"‘I had no idea this case was being conducted,’ a surprised Hosko said in an interview," the article reported. If Hosko didn’t know about the case, it’s unlikely that his director did. There is no evidence to suggest that Clinton or Mueller played a role in the deal. 

Trump repeated variations of this claim several times during his 2016 presidential campaign. Politifact rated them as “mostly false”. The Washington Post Fact Checker gave Trump’s statements its worst rating of Four Pinocchios. Snopes also rated the claims as false. – Africa Check 


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