How Steve Bannon and Sean Hannity's ginned-up Hillary Clinton uranium story became a congressional investigation
Pro-Trump conservatives want to talk about their own Russia narrative. The only problem is that it's bullshit.
Blog ››› ››› MATT GERTZ
President Donald Trump has spent much of his presidency engulfed by congressional and criminal investigations into Russian efforts to help him win the 2016 presidential election. But today, Rep. Devin Nunes (R-CA), the chairman of the House Intelligence Committee, announced he was joining a new congressional probe -- one that appears to revolve around the purported Russian ties of Trump’s opponent in that race, former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton.
This is no accident. Like the work of the House Select Committee on Benghazi before it, this is a partisan investigation with a political purpose, with its roots in the conspiratorial muck of the right-wing media. But while the Benghazi probe -- as Republican leaders eventually acknowledged -- was an offensive push to damage Clinton’s political standing in the lead-up to the 2016 election, the new one is a defensive move aimed at protecting Trump by diverting attention to his former opponent. The effort's loudest champion is Sean Hannity, the Trump propagandist and sometime adviser who has claimed for months that the “real collusion” with Russia revolves around a bogus conspiracy theory linking Clinton to the 2010 sale of the uranium mining company Uranium One to the Russian government.
The story begins with Breitbart.com head Stephen Bannon. In 2012, long before he became the Trump campaign’s chief executive and joined Trump’s White House as chief strategist, Bannon launched the Government Accountability Institute, a nonprofit conservative investigative research organization. Three years later, GAI’s president, the discredited author Peter Schweizer, authored the bestselling book Clinton Cash. The book, built on GAI’s research, alleged that Bill and Hillary Clinton “typically blur the lines between politics, philanthropy, and business.” It was a trainwreck of sloppy research and shoddy reporting, but was heavily promoted by mainstream outlets thanks to a cunning media strategy overseen by Bannon, and taken up by Trump during the campaign.
One of the book’s bogus allegations was Schweizer’s claim that Hillary Clinton played a "central role" in approving the purchase of Uranium One by the Russian State Atomic Nuclear Agency. Schweizer speculated that she did so because of the money given to the Clinton Foundation and her husband by Russians and people linked to the deal. But this made no sense, and several reporters assessing Schweizer’s claims rejected them. The State Department had one of nine votes on the committee that approved the deal; the State Department rep said Clinton never intervened on the issue; there were critical questions about the timing of the donations Schweizer referenced; and even Schweizer said he had no direct evidence Clinton had intervened.
The false allegations might have been forgotten in the wake of the election. But in January, the U.S. intelligence community announced that Russia interfered with the 2016 presidential election on the orders of Russian President Vladimir Putin with the aim of harming Clinton’s campaign because “Putin and the Russian Government developed a clear preference for President-elect Trump.” Reporting from a host of news outlets ever since has suggested that Trump’s campaign aides and associates had a series of troubling interactions with Russians, triggering congressional investigations and eventually a criminal probe by special counsel Robert Mueller. With Trump’s presidency hanging in the balance, his allies have searched for a way to rebut the charges.
Hannity eventually settled on the old Clinton Cash allegations. Claiming that there is no evidence to support what he terms “black-helicopter, tinfoil-hat conspiracy theories about so-called Trump-Russia collusion,” the Fox host declared that the “real collusion” is between Clinton and Russia, as demonstrated by the Uranium One tale. He pushed that argument over and over again to his audience of 3 million, making it in more than two dozen monologues over the summer.
Then a week ago, Hannity tweeted this:
Hannity was promoting a report by John Solomon, the executive vice president of The Hill, which purported to advance the Uranium One story. According to Solomon’s anonymous sources, “Russian nuclear officials had routed millions of dollars to the U.S. designed to benefit former President Bill Clinton’s charitable foundation during the time Secretary of State Hillary Clinton served on a government body that provided a favorable decision to Moscow.” Solomon provides no evidence that the Clintons were aware this was happening, and of course the underlying conspiracy theory that Clinton pushed the Uranium One deal through still makes no sense. But it’s something the right-wing press can use to try to shift attention away from Trump.
Solomon is an investigative journalist who has had many acts in the business. This year, he’s drawn attention for his work as chief operating officer of Circa News, a mobile-first platform with an independent brand that the conservative goliath Sinclair Broadcast Group bought in 2015, hollowed out, and turned into its own pro-Trump news website. At Circa, Solomon and his colleague Sara Carter excelled at turning out stories -- often anonymously sourced -- alleging impropriety by former Obama national security officials and former FBI Director James Comey. Feeding into the right-wing narratives about efforts by nefarious deep-state actors to tear down the president, Circa’s reporting received glowing reviews from Trump’s most conspiratorial supporters.
But Circa’s biggest fan is Hannity -- as The Hill put it in March, he “has repeatedly lauded Circa as the gold standard.” Indeed, for all intents and purposes, Solomon’s operation replaced Fox’s own journalists in providing the pro-Trump reporting Hannity needs to confirm his biases. According to Media Matters research, Carter appeared on 30 episodes of Hannity from May 15 through the end of August -- the only guests to show up more often were Trump lawyer Jay Sekulow and Fox legal analyst Gregg Jarrett. Solomon made 14 appearances on Hannity’s Fox News show during the same time frame.
Hannity heavily promoted Solomon’s story on his Fox show, devoting extensive segments to the “explosive” “bombshell” on the night it broke and the next two nights. He’s hosted Solomon, Carter, and Schweizer, harangued the rest of the press for not covering the story, and declared Uranium One “one of the biggest scandals this country has ever seen.” And on the night the story broke, he made clear what he thought should happen next:
HANNITY: Also, is Congress now going to do its job? Will they investigate these explosive reports immediately? Will the Special Counsel Robert Mueller start looking into this Russian plot to control American uranium?
Over the next few days, Trump’s allies on Fox and elsewhere worked themselves into a frenzy over the “real collusion” story (per Alex Jones, the “Beginning Of The End For Clinton Crime Family”). On the morning of October 19, apparently spurred on by a Fox & Friends segment on Solomon’s story, Trump himself joined the fray, tweeting, “Uranium deal to Russia, with Clinton help and Obama Administration knowledge, is the biggest story that Fake Media doesn’t want to follow!”
And now Nunes -- who had to recuse himself from Russia-related investigations earlier this year due to ethics charges that resulted from his effort to do the White House’s bidding and scuttle the Trump-Russia investigations -- is taking a hand. At a press conference today, he announced that he would be launching an investigation into the Uranium One allegations. He will be working alongside the House Oversight Committee, helmed by the former chairman of the Benghazi Committee, Rep. Trey Gowdy (R-SC).
The New York Times yesterday detailed how Republican congressmen, including Nunes and Gowdy, are trying to “wrap up the investigations” into Trump’s Russia ties as quickly as possible. “Congressional investigations unfortunately are usually overtly political investigations, where it is to one side’s advantage to drag things out,” Gowdy told the Times. He knows that from experience. A year into Trump’s presidency, egged on by sycophantic media allies like Hannity, the first congressional investigation into a Clinton has begun. It won’t end anytime soon.