For weeks, President Trump has openly, publicly and energetically pressured the Justice Department to prosecute his political opponents, specifically Hillary Clinton. He has also expressed considerable anger at his handpicked attorney general, Jeff Sessions, for so far refusing to carry out those wishes.
“The saddest thing is that because I’m the president of the United States, I am not supposed to be involved with the Justice Department,” Trump whined to a conservative talk-radio host earlier this month. “I am not supposed to be involved with the FBI.”
“I look at what’s happening with the Justice Department. Well, why aren’t they going after Hillary Clinton with her emails and with her, the dossier?” Trump said, adding that he was “very unhappy” with where the Justice Department “isn’t going.”
“I am not supposed to be doing the kind of things that I would love to be doing,” he said. “And I am very frustrated by it.”
And when he’s frustrated, he turns to Twitter:
Trump’s right: He’s not supposed to be doing this. In this country, in the United States of America, in the world’s oldest democracy, politicians are not supposed to order criminal prosecution of their opponents. That may happen in some Third World country where the rule of law has yet to be established, but not here, and even the attempt represents a fundamental breach of law, decency and democratic norms.
Given that background, it’s more than a little worrisome that in a letter to Congress on Monday, the U.S. attorney general announced that he is now investigating whether to do as his unhappy president has demanded. According to the letter from Sessions, senior prosecutors in the Justice Department have been assigned to study whether a special counsel should be appointed to investigate Hillary Clinton’s role in the sale of U.S. uranium reserves to Rosatom, a Russian company, and other matters as well.
As you might expect, putting the words “Hillary,” “Russia” and “uranium” into a single sentence is more than enough to send conservative hearts aflutter, especially since it serves as a counterpoint to the deepening investigation into Trump’s own ties to Russia. Republicans up the ante even further when they claim that individuals connected to the Rosatom deal contributed $145 million to the Clinton Foundation, suggesting corruption and even treason.
As Tucker Carlson on Fox News put it, “Why is it a good idea to give a hostile power 20 percent of our uranium supplies? It’s insane.”
“The Russians infiltrated our national security to corner the uranium market, and they succeeded,” charged Seb Gorka said. “If this had happened in the 1950s, there would be people up on treason charges right now. The Rosenbergs, OK? This is equivalent to what the Rosenbergs did, and those people got the chair.”
So it looks bad, right? Looks like Hillary’s going to get the chair?
Wrong. As Sessions himself told Congress today, “”I would say ‘looks like’ is not enough basis to appoint a special counsel.” Instead, you need facts.
So let’s go to the facts:
— Most of that $145 million came from one man, Canadian Frank Giustra, who owned a global mining company and donated $131 million to the Clinton Foundation. That donation came in late 2005. In 2007, Giustra sold his entire share of the mining company to another Canadian firm. It wasn’t until 2010 that the second Canadian firm sold its holdings to the Russian company. So the GOP theory of the case requires you to believe that Giustra donated $131 million to the Clinton Foundation so that five years later, a company that Giustra hadn’t owned for three years could get a deal approved. Even in the universe of right-wing political conspiracy theories, that one’s pretty nuts.
— Russia didn’t get the uranium and can’t get the uranium. A Russia-based company might own it, but by law that material can only be sold here in America and only used here in America. (A small share of that ore apparently has been shipped to our ally Canada for purification, with the understanding that it is then returned to this country. The point is, Russia didn’t get it and can’t get it.)
— None of the uranium is needed for defense purposes, because the U.S. nuclear arsenal uses reprocessed nuclear material, not material from raw ore. In short, the ore has no strategic military significance and can never find its way into bombs.
— Twenty percent of American uranium production may sound like a lot, but it isn’t. The United States ranks ninth in the world in uranium production, producing 5 percent as much ore as Kazakhstan and less than 10 percent as much as Canada, which is our main source of uranium for energy needs. Twenty percent of not much is very little.
— The State Department, run by Clinton at the time, did have to approve the sale to Rosneft. However, the State Department was just one of nine U.S. agencies, including the Defense Department, Energy Department and Department of Homeland Security, that unanimously agreed that the proposed sale had no strategic consequences, for reasons outlined above. There is no indication that Clinton played any role whatsoever in the approval process.
These are facts already on the public record and not in dispute. Yet these are also the facts that in the eyes of Trump and of Republican members of Congress somehow demand criminal prosecution. Congressional Republicans who spent tens of millions of dollars chasing but never catching Clinton using the investigatory powers of congressional committees now want to target her using the immense powers of the Justice Department, even with no solid grounds for doing so.
It is plausible — and I hope even likely — that the letter from Sessions to Congress promising to study the possibility of a second special counsel is just an effort to placate the noisy, to ensure Trump and others that these charges have been looked at and determined to be groundless. As that letter pointedly promises, “the department will never evaluate any matter except on the facts and the law. Professionalism, integrity and public confidence in the department’s work is critical for us, and no priority is higher.”
If that promise is kept, if politics and presidential grandstanding are ignored by professionals applying professional prosecutorial standards, we’ll be fine. If it is not, then the poison that it injects into the American system of government could prove fatal to the credibility on which that government stands.