Attorney General Jeff Sessions this week raised the possibility that a special counsel may be appointed to investigate potential wrongdoing by the Clinton Foundation, specifically suggestions that a U.S. government panel approved the sale of a large uranium firm to Russian interests in exchange for donations to the foundation.
The so-called Uranium One deal has been a focus of conservative media and President Donald Trump, who has repeatedly asked on Twitter why the DOJ is not actively investigating the matter.
Below are the must-read questions — and some answers — regarding the controversy.
What is the Uranium One deal?
The deal in question involves the sale of a Canadian company, Uranium One, with mining interests in the U.S. to Rosatom, Russia’s nuclear energy agency. The sale occurred in stages, beginning in 2009 when Rosatom purchased a minority stake in Uranium One, and continued in 2010, when the Russian took ownership of a 51 percent share of the company. In 2013, a third transaction gave Rosatom full ownership of Uranium One.
With its purchase of Uranium One, Rosatom assumed control of roughly 20 percent of uranium production capacity in the U.S. The current licenses issued to Rosatom’s U.S. subsidiaries, issued by the Nuclear Regulatory Commission, prohibit the company from exporting uranium outside the country, according to OilPrice.com.
Because uranium is considered an asset with national security implications, the 2010 sale to Rosatom was subject to approval by the Committee on Foreign Investment in the United States, an intragovernmental agency that includes input from the Departments of State, Treasury, Justice, Energy, Defense, Commerce and Homeland Security, as well as the office of the U.S. Trade Representative.
What are the allegations of wrongdoing?
Controversy surrounding the deal largely pertains to 2016 Democratic presidential nominee Hillary Clinton, who was secretary of state in 2010 when the State Department signed off on Rosatom’s purchase of Uranium One. Several of Uranium One’s owners were also donors to the Clinton Foundation, giving $145 million to the charitable foundation, and critics have alleged that Clinton green-lit the sale to appease donors to her family’s charity.
Connections between Clinton Foundation donors and Uranium One were first published in 2015 by The New York Times, which based its reporting in part on the book “Clinton Cash” by Breitbart News senior editor-at-large Peter Schweizer.
The allegations resurfaced last October, when The Hill reported that the FBI was investigating Kremlin “bribery, kickbacks, extortion and money laundering designed to grow Vladimir Putin’s atomic energy business inside the United States.”
Is there any truth to the allegations?
As PolitiFact has laid out in great detail, there is no direct evidence of a quid-pro-quo between Clinton, the State Department, Rosatom and the Clinton Foundation donors with ties to Uranium One. Clinton has repeatedly denied any involvement in the State Department’s approval of the Uranium One sale, insisting that such approval was granted at lower levels of the department and would not have crossed the secretary’s desk.
Jose Fernandez, who was the assistant secretary of state for economic, energy and business affairs when the Uranium One deal was approved, told the Times that Clinton “never intervened with me on any CFIUS matter."
Beyond the State Department, eight other government agencies approved the Uranium One sale.
Why is concern about this controversy being raised now?
Criticism of the Uranium One deal has circulated for weeks within conservative circles and has been dragged into the mainstream by Trump, who has called on the Justice Department to launch an investigation into the issue. Such calls put Trump out of line with his predecessors from both parties, who have largely sought to avoid creating the appearance of political influence at the Justice Department.
Trump and his allies have been especially vocal in their calls for a Uranium One investigation in response to news regarding special prosecutor Robert Mueller’s probe into Russian interference into the 2016 election and allegations that individuals with ties to Trump or his campaign may have colluded with the Kremlin in those efforts.
What about a special prosecutor?
Some Trump supporters have called on the Justice Department to appoint a special prosecutor to investigate the deal, a step that Attorney General Jeff Sessions appears to be entertaining. In a letter sent Monday to House Republicans, one of Sessions’ top deputies said the attorney general had directed federal prosecutors to look into certain issues, among them the Uranium One deal and the Clinton Foundation.
Those prosecutors, the letter said, “will report directly to the Attorney General and the Deputy Attorney General, as appropriate, and will make recommendations as to whether any matters not currently under investigation should be opened, whether any matters currently under investigation, require further resources, or whether any matters merit the appointment of a Special Counsel.”
At a House Judiciary Committee hearing on Tuesday, Sessions pushed back on questioning about why the DOJ has not more aggressively pursued a Uranium One investigation, saying, "’Looks like’ is not enough basis to appoint a special counsel.”
A DOJ spokesman, however, clarified that Sessions was not taking sides on GOP lawmakers’ months-long call for a special counsel to investigate Clinton.