Attorney Gen. Jeff Sessions has directed “senior federal prosecutors” to investigate issues pertaining to the controversial sale of Uranium One, according to a letter from the Department of Justice exclusively obtained by Fox News.
Multiple congressional committees have called for an investigation into the Obama-era deal that resulted in a Russian company purchasing American uranium mines.
The Justice Department previously lifted a gag order on a former FBI informant who is expected to have more information regarding the agreement that allowed Russia to control about one-fifth of the uranium mining in the U.S. – and former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton’s involvement in it. The request came at the behest of many Republican lawmakers.
Now, Sessions has cleared the way for an appointment of a special counsel to oversee an investigation into the deal. However, the Justice Department noted that it does not confirm active investigations.
The controversial sale of what is now Uranium One to a Russian company is what President Trump has called the “real Russia story” as federal investigators continue to probe Russia’s alleged involvement in the 2016 election. The Hill reported that Russian officials engaged in a “racketeering scheme” to further its energy goals in the U.S.
What was the Uranium One deal?
In 2013, Rosatom, backed by the Russian state, acquired a Canadian uranium mining company, now called Uranium One, which has assets in the U.S. Uranium is key to making nuclear weapons.
Through the deal, Russia is able to own about 20 percent of U.S. uranium production capacity. However, Colin Chilcoat, an energy affairs specialist who has written extensively about Russia's energy deals, said that the company only extracts about 11 percent of uranium in the U.S.
The deal also “doesn’t allow for that uranium to be exported at all,” Chilcoat told Fox News. “It’s not like it’s leaving the U.S. or somehow finding its way to more insidious players.”
The agreement was approved by nine government agencies with the Committee on Foreign Investment in the United States (CFIUS), an inter-agency group that reviews how certain foreign investments can impact national security. Clinton’s State Department was one of those agencies, though the former secretary of state told WMUR-TV in 2015 that she was not “personally involved” in the agreement.
Why is it controversial?
Republicans have largely decried the deal, especially as some investors reportedly donated millions of dollars to the Clinton Foundation. Former President Bill Clinton also received a $500,000 speaking fee in Russia and reportedly met with Vladimir Putin around the time of the deal.
The FBI had looked into the agreement and uncovered that some Russian nuclear industry officials were engaged in nefarious dealings, which included extortion, bribery and kickbacks, The Hill reported. Evidence of wrongdoing by Vadim Mikerin, the Russian official overseeing Putin’s nuclear expansion in the U.S. who was eventually sentenced to prison, was discovered by the FBI before the deal was approved, according to The Hill.
Author Peter Schweizer – who wrote about the deal in his 2015 book “Clinton Cash” – told Fox News that there is no evidence that the people involved with approving the agreement knew that the FBI had an ongoing investigation into it.
"If anyone colluded for a foreign government in last year’s election, it was the Clinton campaign."
But Republicans say the whole affair raises serious questions.
“Now it’s the Democrats who have some explaining to do,” Republican National Committee Chairwoman Ronna McDaniel said in a statement. “I hope they will cooperate with the investigation, be forthcoming with the American people and I expect the media to cover these new developments with the same breathless intensity that they have given to this investigation since day one.”
And White House press secretary Sarah Sanders told Fox News that “if anyone colluded for a foreign government in last year’s election, it was the Clinton campaign [and] the Democrats.”
Trump has often accused the media of not reporting enough on the Uranium One deal.
“Uranium deal to Russia, with Clinton help and Obama administration knowledge, is the biggest story that Fake Media doesn’t want to follow!” the president tweeted on Oct. 19.
And in March, Trump asked on social media why the House Intelligence Committee has not launched an investigation into the “Bill and Hillary deal that allowed big Uranium to go to Russia.”
How does this tie in with the other Russia investigation?
Multiple congressional committees as well as the Justice Department are looking into possible Russian collusion in the 2016 presidential election – and ties between Russians and Trump’s campaign.
"That's your real Russia story. Not a story where they talk about collusion and there was none. It was a hoax. Your real Russia story is uranium," Trump has said.
Robert Mueller, the special counsel leading the probe into alleged Russian interference in the election, was the head of the FBI when it investigated Rosatom officials’ extortion and corruption.
"Your real Russia story is uranium."
And the investigation was led by then-Assistant FBI Director Andrew McCabe, now the deputy FBI director, and then-U.S. Attorney Rod Rosenstein, now the deputy attorney general, The Hill reported.
Mueller's investigators in the Russia probe report to Rosenstein.
The special prosecutors instructed by the Justice Department to investigate “certain issues” pertaining to the Uranium One deal will also report to Rosenstein and Sessions, Assistant Attorney Gen. Stephen Boyd wrote in the letter obtained by Fox News.
Congressional committees are looking into whether Mueller informed the Obama administration, particularly those tasked with approving the Uranium One deal, prior to CFIUS approval.
In her attempt to discredit reports of the controversy surrounding the Uranium One deal, Clinton said Trump and “his allies, including Fox News,” are diverting from the investigation.
“The closer the investigation about real Russian ties between Trump associates and real Russians … the more they want to just throw mud on the wall,” she said Monday. “I’m their favorite target, me and President Obama.”
What happens next?
The former informant’s lawyer, Victoria Toensing, has told Fox Business that her client can “tell what all the Russians were talking about during the time that all these bribery payments were made.” The informant was prevented from testifying by former attorneys general Eric Holder and Loretta Lynch, according to Toensing.
With the gag order lifted, the informant will be allowed to speak with the Senate Judiciary Committee, House Oversight Committee and House Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence, the Justice Department said. The informant will be able to provide “any information or documents he has concerning alleged corruption or bribery involving transactions in the uranium market,” it said.
“Witnesses who want to talk to Congress should not be gagged and threatened with prosecution for talking,” Sen. Chuck Grassley, R-Iowa, said in a statement. The Justice Department said Wednesday night that it has lifted the gag order, allowing the informant to discuss the deal with congressional investigators.
Jamil Jaffer, a former counsel in the Justice Department, said the alleged informant could allow Congress to “follow the money” because “if the informant was inside many or all of these transactions, meetings or conversations, he may be able to provide useful information about the intent behind the transaction and whether it was quid pro quo.”
“The key issues at stake in this investigation are all about intent and knowledge: was there an intent to influence official business, and, if so, did the recipient take the money in exchange for taking official action,” Jaffer, the director of the National Security Law and Policy Program at George Mason University’s Antonin Scalia Law School, told Fox News.
But Jaffer said the credibility of the so-called informant will also come into play.
“Was this a foreign agent or criminal who turned? Was this a private individual the FBI placed inside [the deal]? Was this a government employee? All these factors, plus the level of the informant’s access to relevant information, will make a big difference here,” Jaffer.
Rep. Ron DeSantis, R-Fla., told Fox News that the House Oversight committee’s investigation “could be criminal,” depending on the statute of limitations.
Fox News' Brooke Singman, John Roberts and The Associated Press contributed to this report.