In a TV ad, Donald Trump falsely claims that Hillary Clinton “handed over American uranium rights to the Russians” as part of a “pay-to-play” scheme to get “filthy rich.” Clinton did not have the authority to unilaterally approve that deal.
As secretary of state, Clinton was one of nine voting members of the foreign investment committee in 2010 that approved the uranium deal, which was then approved by the president and passed through the Nuclear Regulatory Commission.
The ad, titled “Corruption,” has aired on national cable and in 12 states this month, most heavily in Florida, Ohio, Pennsylvania and Wisconsin, according to Kantar Media’s Campaign Media Analysis Group. The ad makes several shaky claims as it tries to link the income Bill and Hillary Clinton have earned since leaving political office with donations to the Clinton Foundation.
“The Clintons: from dead broke to worth hundreds of millions. So how did Hillary end up filthy rich?” the ad asks. “Pay to play politics. Staggering amounts of cash poured into the Clinton Foundation from criminals, dictators, countries that hate America.”
But the Clintons didn’t pocket money that was donated to the nonprofit Clinton Foundation, set up by Bill Clinton after his time as president. Instead, they made their money outside of office by giving speeches and writing books, as the Fortune.com article the ad cites explains. That article doesn’t say anything about the foundation and puts the Clintons’ estimated net worth at $110 million (which isn’t “hundreds of millions,” the claim in the ad).
The foundation, which says it has more than 330,000 contributors, has been criticized for accepting foreign donations while Clinton was secretary of state, including from Algeria, Kuwait, Qatar and Oman, and for accepting Saudi Arabia’s money before and after her tenure. As the Washington Post noted, some of those countries have “complicated diplomatic, military and financial relationships with the U.S. government.” But it’s a stretch to classify them as “countries that hate America.”
There are other examples of the citations in the ad not quite supporting the claims, but the most egregious is the uranium example. So we’ll start there.
‘Handed Over’ Uranium?
The ad claims that Hillary Clinton “even handed over American uranium rights to the Russians,” citing an April 2015 New York Times story. But the story doesn’t say that. And the idea that Clinton could have “handed over” uranium rights, even if she wanted to, isn’t supported by the facts.
Clinton’s role, and the link to the Clinton Foundation, first became an issue a year and a half ago, when news organizations received advance copies of the book “Clinton Cash: The Untold Story of How and Why Foreign Governments and Businesses Helped Make Bill and Hillary Rich,” by Peter Schweizer, a former fellow at a conservative think tank.
On April 23, 2015, the New York Timeswrote about the uranium issue, saying the paper had “built upon” Schweizer’s information.
The story doesn’t find evidence of a pay-to-play scandal or say that Clinton was responsible for the uranium deal. The Times details how the Clinton Foundation had received millions in donations from investors in Uranium One, a Canadian-based company that sold a controlling stake in 2010 to Rosatom, the Russian nuclear energy agency, in a deal that had to be approved by the U.S. government. Uranium One had mining stakes in the Western United States, amounting to one-fifth of the uranium production capacity in the U.S., the Times reported.
The donations from those with ties to Uranium One weren’t publicly disclosed by the Clinton Foundation, even though then-Secretary of State Hillary Clinton had an agreement with the White House that the foundation would disclose all contributors. Days after the Times story, the foundation acknowledged that it “made mistakes,” saying it had disclosed donations from a Canadian charity, for instance, but not the donors to that charity who were associated with the uranium company.
The Times wrote that the circumstances raised “ethical challenges”:
New York Times, April 23, 2015: Whether the donations played any role in the approval of the uranium deal is unknown. But the episode underscores the special ethical challenges presented by the Clinton Foundation, headed by a former president who relied heavily on foreign cash to accumulate $250 million in assets even as his wife helped steer American foreign policy as secretary of state, presiding over decisions with the potential to benefit the foundation’s donors.
A few days after the Times story, Schweizer made the false claim on “Fox News Sunday” that Clinton, as secretary of state, had “veto power” and “could have stopped” the sale. We found that only the president had that power.
As we explained in our story at the time, Clinton was one of nine government officials to make up the Committee on Foreign Investments in the United States, which is required by law to investigate all U.S. transactions that involve a company owned or controlled by a foreign government. Committee members include the secretaries of the Treasury, Defense, Homeland Security, Commerce and Energy, the attorney general, and representatives from two White House offices — the United States Trade Representative and the Office of Science and Technology Policy.
The committee can’t actually stop a sale from going through — it can only approve a sale. The president is the only one who can stop a sale, if the committee or any one member “recommends suspension or prohibition of the transaction,” according to guidelines issued by the Treasury Department in December 2008 after the department adopted its final rule a month earlier.
So, Clinton could have objected — as could the eight other voting members — but that objection alone wouldn’t have stopped the sale of the stake of Uranium One to Rosatom. “Only the President has the authority to suspend or prohibit a covered transaction,” the federal guidelines say.
And the president would need to have “credible evidence,” the guidelines say, that the “foreign interest exercising control might take action that threatens to impair the national security.” In 2010, when the deal was finalized, “the geopolitical backdrop was far different from today’s,” the Times notes, as the U.S. wanted to “reset” relations with Russia.
We don’t know much about the approval of the deal from the Committee on Foreign Investments, which goes by the acronym CFIUS. There are “strong confidentiality requirements” prohibiting disclosure of information filed with the committee, and it doesn’t disclose the results of its review, the Treasury Department says on its website. But we should have known if even one of the voting members objected to the Uranium One deal. “When a transaction is referred to the President, however, the decision of the President is announced publicly,” Treasury says.
It’s unclear whether Clinton herself was involved in the CFIUS approval. According to the Times, Jose Fernandez, a former assistant secretary of state, represented the department on the committee. He told the Times: “Mrs. Clinton never intervened with me on any C.F.I.U.S. matter.”
The Nuclear Regulatory Commission also had to approve — and did — the transfer of two uranium recovery licenses in Wyoming from Uranium One to the Russian company.
As the Times wrote, there are certainly ethical considerations when a former president is accepting foundation donations from people who have a stake in a business deal and his spouse sits on a committee that approves such deals. But Hillary Clinton wasn’t responsible for “hand[ing] over American uranium rights to the Russians,” as the Trump ad claims. The Uranium One deal passed muster with nine members of the foreign investments committee, the president and the Nuclear Regulatory Commission.
Other ‘Pay-to-Play’ Claims
The Trump ad makes other weak claims in an attempt to support its “pay-to-play” theme.
It says Clinton “cut deals for donors,” citing a Wall Street Journal article on Clinton, who, in 2009, worked on an agreement for the Swiss-based UBS, which was facing an IRS lawsuit to get the identities of Americans with secret bank accounts.
The Journal reported in the July 31, 2015, story that Clinton “was summoned to Geneva by her Swiss counterpart” to discuss the case, which, if it proceeded, would leave UBS to either “[v]iolate Swiss secrecy laws by handing over the names, or refuse and face criminal charges in U.S. federal court.”
Clinton, who wanted to discuss other diplomatic matters, including a Swiss energy company’s alleged involvement in providing nuclear technology to Iran, worked out a tentative deal for UBS with the Swiss foreign minister. The company ended up settling with the Justice Department and gave information on about 4,450 accounts out of 52,000 total.
What’s the connection to the Clinton Foundation? The Journal reported that UBS donations to the foundation grew – from $60,000 through 2008, before the settlement, to $600,000 through end of 2014. UBS denied any connection between the donations and the IRS case. UBS also paid Bill Clinton $1.5 million for a series of panel discussions, held along with former President George W. Bush, in cities across the United States. The Journal reported that spokesmen for Bush and UBS wouldn’t say how much Bush received.
“There is no evidence of any link between Mrs. Clinton’s involvement in the case and the bank’s donations to the Bill, Hillary and Chelsea Clinton Foundation, or its hiring of Mr. Clinton,” the Journal wrote. But the connections raise questions.
Stu Gibson, a lawyer for the Justice Department on the UBS case, told the Journal: “It raises questions that need to be addressed, or should be addressed. … Maybe there’s nothing to it. Maybe there is something to it.”
We asked the Trump campaign if it had any other evidence that Hillary Clinton, as secretary of state, “cut deals for [foundation] donors,” and we haven’t received a response.
The ad cites even thinner evidence for its claim that Clinton “sold out American workers.” The citation is for a May 2015 CBS News article on Clinton earning millions for her paid speeches, after she left office, including at least 10 to groups that have lobbied on trade issues.
We’re not sure how giving a speech to groups concerned about trade amounts to selling out American workers, particularly when “these companies have lobbied on a variety of issues,” as the CBS article says. The list of companies to which Clinton gave speeches includes General Electric, Xerox, eBay, Corning Inc., technology companies and the Institute of Scrap Recycling.
Finally, the ad claims Clinton “exploited Haitians in need,” citing a National Review article, which is an excerpt of a book by Dinesh D’Souza called “Hillary’s America: The Secret History of the Democratic Party.” The excerpt cites several examples of Clinton Foundation-backed Haiti projects, after the 2010 earthquake in the country, that didn’t live up to expectations. Some involved the hiring of companies owned by foundation donors.
D’Souza concludes: “I wouldn’t go so far as to say the Clintons don’t care about Haiti. Yet it seems clear that Haitian welfare is not their priority. Their priority is, well, themselves. The Clintons seem to believe in Haitian reconstruction and Haitian investment as long as these projects match their own private economic interests.”
Bill Clinton was deeply involved in Haiti relief efforts. He served as the United Nations special envoy to Haiti when Hillary Clinton was secretary of state, and, after the earthquake, teamed up with former President George H.W. Bush to form the Clinton Bush Haiti Fund. He was also co-chairman with then-Haiti Prime Minister Jean-Max Bellerive of the Interim Haiti Recovery Commission. The Clinton Foundation says it has raised more than $30 million for the country since 2010.
The verdict on the results of those aid efforts has been mixed. In January, a group of Haitians protested outside the Clinton Foundation offices in New York, saying Haiti hadn’t seen any benefit from earthquake aid money. The Washington Postreported in March 2015 on both successes of Clinton-backed projects, such as farming and an entrepreneurship center, and failures, such as an industrial park that hasn’t lived up to its billing in terms of job creation.
It’s difficult to fact-check this claim in the ad. Some Haitians, as evidenced by the record of some projects in Haiti and the January protest, would agree that Clinton-backed relief efforts didn’t do enough to help the poor. Others, particularly those who benefited from successful projects, would disagree. Regardless, is that evidence of a “pay-to-play” scheme?
Schweizer, the author of “Clinton Cash,” devoted a chapter in his book to Haiti, but even he acknowledged that “corruption of the kind I have described in this book is very difficult to prove.” Indeed, circumstances that raise questions are one thing, an actual quid pro quo is another. And this Trump ad falls far short of proving anything beyond the fact that the Clintons made a lot of money on speaking fees and book contracts after they left office.
The ad’s support doesn’t back up the claims that Clinton “cut deals for donors” or “sold out American workers.” And it’s simply false to claim she “handed over American uranium rights to the Russians.”
FactCheck.org is a non-partisan non-profit organization that will hold candidates and key figures accountable during the 2016 presidential campaign. FactCheck.org will check facts of speeches, advertisements and more for NBC.