The final, inevitable collapse of the right-wing media’s Uranium One conspiracy theory
Report that probe will result in no charges shows the danger of trusting Peter Schweizer’s reporting
U.S. attorney John Huber reportedly intends to close, without bringing charges, his two-year review of the U.S. government's decision not to block the sale of the company known as Uranium One. The news serves as a stinging rebuke to the right-wing media figures who spent years massaging it into a scandal aimed at former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton -- and the mainstream reporters who helped them.
Then-Attorney General Jeff Sessions, under pressure from Fox News critics and the president they regularly advise, appointed Huber in November 2017 to review the sale of Uranium One and other purportedly “unlawful dealings related to the Clinton Foundation” and determine whether they required further investigation. That probe is now winding down, with The Washington Post reporting that its sources say “Huber has largely finished and found nothing worth pursuing” and that the inquiry will involve “no criminal charges or other known impacts.”
The report is a rebuke to the right-wing and mainstream reporters who trumpeted the Uranium One tale, which was transparent nonsense from its inception. Former Breitbart head Steve Bannon, conservative author Peter Schweizer, columnist John Solomon, and Fox host Sean Hannity all played key roles in a wide-ranging effort to damage Clinton and then to protect President Donald Trump by falsely suggesting that Clinton corruptly influenced the sale of Uranium One to Russian interests. And The New York Times made a controversial deal that put its institutional heft behind Schweizer’s shoddy reporting, instantly turning the story into national news.
Journalists should consider this final and inevitable collapse of Schweizer’s bogus claims as they decide whether and how to cover his forthcoming book, which will reportedly target the purported corruption of several Democratic presidential candidates.
How Steve Bannon, Peter Schweizer, and The New York Times launched the Uranium One pseudoscandal
The Uranium One pseudoscandal has its roots in the work of the Government Accountability Institute, a nonprofit conservative investigative research organization founded by Bannon and helmed by Schweizer, a conservative author with a record of major factual errors and questionable sourcing. In 2015, Schweizer used GAI’s work as the foundation for Clinton Cash, a sloppily researched and shoddily reported book which alleged that Bill and Hillary Clinton “typically blur the lines between politics, philanthropy, and business.”
One of the book’s bogus allegations was Schweizer’s claim that as secretary of state, Hillary Clinton played a “central role” in approving the Russian State Atomic Nuclear Agency’s 2010 purchase of Uranium One. Schweizer speculated she did so because Russians and people linked to the deal had donated to the Clinton Foundation and arranged for her husband’s speaking engagements. But this made no sense: The State Department had one of nine votes on the committee that unanimously approved the deal; State’s representative on the committee said Clinton never intervened on the issue; other state, federal, and foreign agencies had approved the deal; the timing of the donations Schweizer referenced was inconsistent with the theory; and Schweizer himself admitted he had no direct evidence Clinton had intervened.
Poorly researched right-wing allegations of Democratic corruption are common, and Schweizer’s book might have been relegated to the likes of Fox and the rest of the conservative media. But under Bannon, GAI developed a cunning media strategy to weaponize its reporting by feeding it to mainstream news outlets. And that’s what happened with Clinton Cash, as The New York Times and The Washington Post made “exclusive agreements” with Schweizer “for early access to his opposition research on Hillary Clinton.”
For the Times, the result was a story giving credence to Schweizer’s allegations about the Uranium One deal that ran on the front page of its April 24, 2015, edition. The story quickly unraveled, with further revelations about the process the deal went through leading NBC News to conclude the next day that, “upon reflection, that Times article doesn’t hold up that well.” But the damage was already done, with Schweizer’s reporting moving into the mainstream after effectively receiving the seal of approval from the most powerful brand in U.S. political news. Uranium One received waves of coverage during the 2016 presidential campaign, and Trump highlighted the pseudoscandal on the campaign trail, helping to generate a shroud of corruption around Clinton as the election approached.
John Solomon and Sean Hannity turn Uranium One into the “real” Russia collusion
Rather that fading from view after Trump’s victory, Uranium One subsequently became a key right-wing defense after special counsel Robert Mueller began reviewing ties between Trump’s associates and Russian interference in the 2016 election. Fox hosts like Hannity revived the story in the months following Mueller’s appointment as supposed evidence that Clinton had perpetrated the “real collusion” with Russia.
Conservative columnist John Solomon gave the tale new life in October 2017 when he reported that “Russian nuclear officials had routed millions of dollars to the U.S. designed to benefit former President Bill Clinton’s charitable foundation” as part of a scheme to ensure the Uranium One deal’s success, and suggested that Mueller, as FBI director, had covered up the attempt by Russia to bribe the Clintons. Solomon, who has a long record of turning out stories alleging impropriety by Democrats which later fall apart, provided no evidence that the Clintons were aware this was happening or that Mueller had acted improperly, and of course the underlying conspiracy theory that Hillary Clinton pushed the Uranium One deal through still makes no sense.
Nonetheless, in late October and early November of that year, Solomon’s reporting triggered nearly 12 hours of Uranium One coverage on Fox News, as the network’s pro-Trump propagandists argued that the story was evidence that Clinton “sold out America to the Russians” and that federal investigations into the roles of both Clinton and Mueller were necessary. Hannity was particularly obsessed with the story, giving it nearly three-and-a-half hours of airtime over that period, hosting Solomon eight times, and using it to call on Mueller to resign. Echoing the Fox coverage, Trump’s congressional allies called for the appointment of a special counsel to review the Uranium One sale. And Trump himself, responding to entreaties from his television, termed the Uranium One deal “the biggest story that Fake News doesn’t want to follow!”
By the end of November, Sessions succumbed to that wave of congressional, presidential, and Fox pressure -- which included an Oval Office meeting in which network host Jeanine Pirro criticized him to the president for not pursuing the conspiracy theory -- and appointed Huber to review the claims.
Solomon’s story, already based on faulty premises, would dissolve over the following months as it came under scrutiny from House investigators. His reporting revolved around the claims of an anonymous source, later revealed as the lobbyist William Douglas Campbell. But Justice Department officials subsequently told House oversight committee staff in December 2017 that Campbell was “too unreliable to use as a witness due to inconsistencies in his story” and had “offered no evidence about Clinton.” In a February 2018 interview with House investigators, Campbell was similarly unable to produce evidence that the review process for the Uranium One deal had been improperly influenced.
Notably, Campbell’s lawyer for these dealing was Victoria Toensing, the Republican attorney who often appears on Fox to promote claims of Democratic malfeasance. Toensing is also Solomon’s longtime lawyer, an apparent conflict of interest not revealed in Solomon’s Uranium One reporting.
Schweizer’s new book gives journalists a chance to break the disinformation cycle
Toensing and Solomon have more recently been in the news for helping to create, along with other associates and Toensing clients, a sprawling disinformation campaign targeting former Vice President Joe Biden. That effort, helmed by Rudy Giuliani, Trump’s personal lawyer, alleges that Biden improperly pushed Ukraine’s government to fire its general prosecutor in order to benefit his son, Hunter Biden, who was serving on the board of the Ukrainian natural gas company Burisma Holdings, which they claim the prosecutor was investigating.
Those baseless and repeatedly debunked allegations originate with a familiar source: Schweizer, the author of Clinton Cash, who wrote about them in his 2018 book, Secret Empires: How the American Political Class Hides Corruption and Enriches Family and Friends. Secret Empires received little initial attention outside of right-wing media -- it was only when Giuliani seized on the Biden conspiracy theory and seeded Solomon’s reporting that the story broke through to the mainstream. Meanwhile, Hannity and his colleagues at Fox have seized upon the Biden allegations, just as they did Uranium One.
Later this month, Schweizer will be out with a new book, Profiles in Corruption: Abuse of Power by America’s Progressive Elite. At a time of shocking malfeasance at every level of the Trump administration, from the president on down, Schweizer’s book on corruption will reportedly target Democratic presidential candidates including Biden and Sens. Cory Booker, Bernie Sanders, Amy Klobuchar, and Elizabeth Warren.
Journalists should be wise to Schweizer’s schtick of producing bogus and easily debunked tales of Democratic corruption for Trump’s political benefit by now. They have no reason to trust his reporting and every reason to doubt it. If they choose to amplify his new book, they are amplifying conspiracy-minded garbage. John Huber just all but told them so.