Holman W. Jenkins, Jr.
President Obama sought better relations with Russia, in keeping with the policy of presidents at least since FDR.
He acceded in 2010 to a Russian government desire to acquire a company whose assets included a Nevada uranium mining concern on the widely accepted grounds that economic interdependence helps relations stay on a productive path. And, by the way, Russia cannot cart a U.S. uranium mine back to Russia. If its national security were ever jeopardized, the U.S. could always seize the mine. So that’s not an issue.
Would it have been embarrassing for the Obama policy if it were known that the uranium assets the Russian government sought to buy had been accumulated by Canadian entrepreneurs working closely with Bill Clinton? That the Clinton Foundation received $145 million in pledged contributions from people associated with these transactions? That Mr. Clinton had been paid $500,000 for a speech in Moscow?
Yes. It would have raised political difficulties for Mr. Obama’s Russia policy. It would have harmed the reputation of his secretary of state, Hillary Clinton. How would such knowledge have flavored a multiagency review in charge of approving the mine deal, inevitably tinged by Obama political interests? Hard to say.
The scandal would likely have remained a political one, not a legal one. But who knows? The Watergate truism that it’s not the crime, it’s the coverup should really be modified. Once any kind of investigation is launched on any pretext, a crime can always be found. That’s a given. Not to relitigate Mrs. Clinton’s emails, but if the FBI didn’t find a basis to charge her aides with obstruction and evidence tampering, it’s only because it didn’t want to. Or take Donald Trump: Any prosecutor should hang up his spurs who can’t find something in Mr. Trump’s checkered business history, starting with federal Title 16, Chapter 1, Subchapter b, Part 23, Section 23.3: “Misuse of the terms ‘hand-made,’ ‘hand-polished,’ etc.”
A slight nuance, of course, is that the Clintons’ conflict-of-interest baggage was born of exploiting their politically-earned celebrity, and not the other way around. Whether he meant it or not, Mr. Trump recognized and met expectations when he said, on taking office, he no longer would concern himself with the businesses he left behind. He had a much bigger job now. Though Mrs. Clinton would certainly have been expected to say something similar if she were elected president, she would also have been semi-obliged to insist that the Clinton Foundation was but an extension of her lifelong devotion to public service, which she would be continuing in the White House.
As history records, of course, Uranium One is the scandal that didn’t happen, or is happening only belatedly. The Clinton Foundation connection did not become known. Its dealings did not become fodder for partisan opposition to President Obama or his Russia policy. Only recently have we become aware of a new and piquant fact. What if it had been known that the FBI was sitting on a case involving demonstrable malfeasance (bribery and kickbacks) by the Russian company’s U.S. arm? What if an eyewitness who had helped crack the case told the FBI (as he now claims he did) that Russian uranium executives had spoken openly of currying favor with the Clinton Foundation to advance their U.S. business?
The Nevada mine transfer would have been a lot more politically controversial at the time than it was. President Obama’s Russia rapprochement might have run aground earlier than it eventually did when Russia in 2014 seized Crimea. Mr. Obama might have come to see his secretary of state, Mrs. Clinton, as a political liability.
Which makes it interesting that the FBI, under its then-chief Robert Mueller, appears to have sat on the case—only getting around quietly to announcing a plea deal with the Russian executive five years later, in 2015. It is not necessarily wrong for the FBI to consider the impact on national-security policy of any criminal case that it intends nevertheless to pursue to conviction. But the fact remains: The FBI handled the Uranium One matter in a manner that avoided making immediate trouble for the policy and political interests of Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton.
Which means, if a few thousand voters in the upper Midwest had woken up on a different side of the bed in November 2016, the agency’s treatment of Uranium One might be one more subject of investigation by a GOP congress of President Hillary Clinton. Along with: the Steele dossier; the Steele dossier’s role in an FBI application to spy on Trump associate Carter Page; the FBI’s handling of the Clinton email case; the FBI’s investigation (still under way) of a questionable mixing of government and Clinton Foundation business at Mrs. Clinton’s State Department.
In other words, a Clinton presidency would likely be swallowed up in investigative chaos no less than the Trump presidency. There was an awful lot of baggage to go around among the headliners of the 2016 presidential race.