OCT. 27, 2017 — Burbling leaks and dizzying headlines coming out of politically charged Washington make it easy for responsible news consumers to feel like they’ve sat down in front of the TV to watch an especially muddled thriller.
There are the investigations of possible ties between Russia and Donald Trump’s presidential campaign, which bump into new reports about the Democratic lawyer who indirectly paid a British spy to compile a secret dossier on Trump’s activities. And what about the storyline involving Hillary Clinton possibly helping the Russians obtain American uranium? Where does that fit in? Can anyone sort out fact from fiction?
Each storyline is complex and involves sensitive, shadowy information. Much of the reporting is based on anonymous sources and can’t be independently verified. That means any analysis of the nexus of Trump, Clinton and Russia is open to interpretation, and partisan bias.
The most important point is that special counsel Robert Mueller, a former head of the FBI, continues his investigation of Russian meddling in the 2016 presidential campaign and whether Trump associates engaged in collusion. House and Senate committees are conducting their own probes. There have been subpoenas handed down and subjects named, plus lots of allegations and denials. The president put himself in the middle in May by firing FBI Director James Comey, who was running the investigation Mueller now leads. The bottom line today: These sagas are still unfolding. The country needs to wait for the results of the investigations to judge the facts.
That doesn’t mean catching up on all things Russia is pointless. Trump’s buddy-buddying with Russian President Vladimir Putin is a puzzle that hasn’t been solved. And many legal questions are important, among them: Did Trump obstruct justice by attempting to shut down parts of the Russia investigation when he fired Comey? Big chunks of Trump’s time in office and political capital have been consumed by l’affaire Russe. The president continues to challenge the investigation and tweet about it.
The dossier, which became public in January, was written by a former British intelligence officer named Christopher Steele. He was working as a subcontractor to Fusion GPS, a Washington research firm. The dossier contains unsubstantiated claims of a Kremlin effort to help the Trump campaign, as well as some salacious personal allegations about Trump.
The genesis of the Steele document has been known, but The Washington Post reported this week that Marc Elias, a Washington attorney at Perkins Coie who represented the Clinton campaign and the Democratic National Committee, retained Fusion GPS to compile the research on Trump and Russia. Clinton campaign and current DNC officials say they didn’t know about Elias’ activities.
Now, about the uranium deal: Earlier this month, Fusion GPS tangled with Republican U.S. Rep. Devin Nunes, chairman of the House intelligence committee, over a subpoena to testify. Nunes has recused himself from his committee’s Russia investigation, but he’s pursued Fusion GPS as part of a separate intel committee inquiry into Clinton and the Obama administration’s 2010 approval of the sale of U.S. uranium mines to a Russian-backed company. Did Russian donations grease that transaction and give the Kremlin an inappropriate role in the U.S. energy industry?
The Russia uranium story, detailed by the Washington publication The Hill, has enough characters and coincidences to sound like a serious scandal or, as Clinton declared, a bunch of baloney. The crux of it is that investors connected to the Russia uranium deal also donated money to the Clinton Foundation. The Obama administration approved the transaction in 2010 — but at the same time, the FBI was investigating allegations Russian nuclear industry officials were illicitly trying to make Putin a big player in the U.S. energy industry.
Rather than bringing charges in 2010, The Hill said, the Justice Department continued its investigation for years, leaving the public clueless about “Russian nuclear corruption on U.S. soil” at the same time the Obama administration was allowing Russians to gain control of 20 percent of America’s uranium supply. State Department officials said Clinton was not involved in the detailed government approval process of the Russian transaction.
What’s a citizen to make of all this? No one has proved that Russia illicitly colluded with the Trump campaign, or that Russian donations to the Clinton Foundation influenced the uranium deal or the FBI’s energy investigation.
Trump denies any wrongdoing over Russia and says the dossier is “phony stuff.” He and other Republicans are very interested in the uranium story. “I actually think that’s Watergate, modern-age,” the president said.
Clinton has a different take. “I think the real story is how nervous they are about these continuing investigations,” she said of the Russia meddling probes.
The good thing is that the congressional committees, Mueller and the news media are doing their jobs. Soon enough Americans should be able to distinguish conspiracy theories from provable misconduct.