At 7:17 a.m. on Thursday morning, President Donald Trump fired off a characteristic tweet:
You will be excused for having no idea what the president was talking about, nor should you be surprised to learn Trump was taking his cues from Fox News. Over the past 24 hours the network has devoted significant coverage to a story from the Hill alleging improprieties in the lead-up to the 2010 sale of a Canadian mining company named Uranium One to the Russian state-owned company Rosatom. Since Uranium One held rights to 20 percent of the United States’ uranium production capacity, the deal required the approval of nine different U.S. agencies, including the Hillary Clinton–helmed State Department, before it could go through.
The Hill reports that, before the deal was approved, “the FBI had gathered substantial evidence that Russian nuclear industry officials were engaged in bribery, kickbacks, extortion and money laundering designed to grow Vladimir Putin’s atomic energy business inside the United States.” Fox News has gone big with this story, which involves donations to the Clinton Foundation from Uranium One executives, the aforementioned FBI investigation, and an anonymous FBI informant who claims to have firsthand knowledge of Clintonian malfeasance but cannot go public with his tale because of a nondisclosure agreement. It might, just might, be a perfect Fox News story—especially when the last thing Fox wants to cover are the various Russia-related intrigues currently dogging the Trump administration. If only the story weren’t also so confusing.
I’m certainly confused by it—and I’ve spent the past day trying to understand the details of this story, without much success. If you, like me, have been watching Fox News since Wednesday night, you know simultaneously far too much and far too little about this particular uranium deal—but the one thing you do know is that, according to Fox, Uraniumgate is far, far more scandalous and serious than any possible cooperation by the Trump campaign with Russian interlopers during the 2016 presidential election. Let’s look at how the coverage—and, in particular, any reasonably news-literate viewer’s understanding of the story—evolved over time.
On Wednesday evening, The Story With Martha MacCallum began its broadcast with what sounded like some very big news. “Good evening, Martha,” said Fox News correspondent Ed Henry. “It turns out an FBI investigation may have found there was collusion between Russia and an American administration. It just might be the Obama administration instead of the Trump administration.”
A Russia scandal involving the Obama administration would be a hell of a story, indeed—especially framed like this: “The uranium pact was a sweetheart deal for Putin from then-president Barack Obama,” Henry told MacCallum. “And his aides in 2010 insisted there was no national security reason for the U.S. to oppose the deal, and no evidence any Russians or Clinton Foundation donors had engaged in wrongdoing. Those claims now being called into question at this [Senate Judiciary Committee] hearing today.”
MacCallum next turned to two guests to help parse this news. “There’s a lot to investigate here,” said Washington Times columnist Charles Hurt. “Far more to investigate here than there is evidence to suggest that there was collusion between the Trump campaign and Russia”—and, right here, astute viewers got their first inkling of why Fox News had decided to hit this story so hard. “The most shocking, stunning, amazing thing of all of this,” Hurt concluded, “is that the previous White House agreed to give 20 percent of our uranium over to our greatest nuclear rival on the planet, and that is terrifying.”
Democratic strategist Zac Petkanas tried to offer some perspective. “What people are forgetting is that the Russians can’t actually take the uranium outside of the United States—they don’t have export permits. The uranium has to stay here in the United States,” he said, going on to note that the U.S. only produces 2 percent of the world’s total uranium. Though both of these points seem potentially relevant, MacCallum ignored the first one and scoffed at the second.
“Clearly,” she said, “if it was just such a tiny amount of uranium and it really wasn’t consequential, Zac, you need to explain why there would have been this enormous bribery effort, these kickbacks that were given to people, and why there was so much money flowing to Bill Clinton from the Russians at the same time. And then, mysteriously, the committee that Hillary sits on to sign off on this deal says it’s OK, even though there’s an FBI investigation going on.”
“So, first off, there are a couple misconceptions there,” replied Petkanas. “The bribery that you’re talking about involves a separate FBI case that involves a uranium trucking company.”
“The American trucking company, absolutely,” said MacCallum.
“It has nothing to do with the Uranium One sale,” said Petkanas.
“Well, no, it’s not nothing to do. It was connected,” MacCallum said. “A North American uranium operation that had to do with trucking and transport and then also mines in Canada. Connected.” And that was basically that. At this point I had very little idea about what either of them was saying. All I knew is that I was very confused, and the confusion did not abate at 8 p.m., as MacCallum passed her hosting baton to Tucker Carlson.
“We have spent nearly a year looking for a Russian scandal. For months, it’s been basically the only thing anyone in Washington talked about. Many people were certain it would end in impeachment and prison terms,” said Carlson at the beginning of his namesake program. “Well, it’s finally happened. We have a Russian scandal. But instead of proving collusion between the Trump campaign and the government of Vladimir Putin, this one reveals deep wrongdoing in the Obama administration. And it’s real.”
Carlson added some new assertions to the story: “At least one American businessman says he directly witnessed Russian efforts to convince the Clintons to approve that deal. The businessman says he was blocked from publicly telling Congress what he knew because he was ordered to remain silent by Eric Holder’s Justice Department. It’s a remarkable story, and potentially a very significant one.”
Carlson then spoke to conservative Clinton Cash author Peter Schweizer, who told viewers that, before the sale to Rosatom was approved, nine shareholders in Uranium One “all of the sudden decided they were going to donate large amounts of money to the Clinton Foundation, more than $145 million.” The New York Times also reported on elements of this story in 2015. Why is the story back in the news now, more than two years later? Nancy Soderberg, ambassador to the United Nations under Bill Clinton, summoned President Trump’s favorite catchphrase to try to explain why and address some of the issues raised by the Hill. “The bigger issue here is this whole issue is fake news in terms of an investigation,” she said. “It’s been shut. In fact, all President Trump has to do is ask his current deputy attorney general and deputy head of the FBI, who looked at this and closed it in 2015.”
Carlson was skeptical. “You don’t think it’s prima facie insane to give a country that seeks our destruction control of our uranium supply?” he asked a bit later, conflating the sale of the rights of 20 percent of America’s uranium-production capacity with giving Russia our entire uranium supply.
“All of us take very seriously the control of our uranium supply,” said Soderberg.
“You don’t seem to,” Carlson replied.
At the end of the interview, Soderberg informed Carlson that she was on to Fox’s game. “You’re trying to dig back in history to deflect what’s going on in today’s history,” she said.
“So you’re worried about Facebook ads, and I’m worried about the dissemination of yellowcake,” said Carlson. “I’ll let our viewers decide which is more important.” As a viewer, I wasn’t sure, but I could certainly tell which story Carlson deemed more important. From MacCallum to Carlson, the story had progressed from a suspicious-sounding deal to an alleged tale of yellowcake uranium gone missing as a result of Clintonian corruption. Where would it go next? Somewhere bombastic, no doubt, given that Hannity was the next show on the Fox schedule.
Sure enough, Sean Hannity picked up and added to the story, alleging during his opening monologue that the Hill had “uncovered another massive Democratic scandal.” The upshot, according to Hannity, was Russia routed money to the Clinton Foundation while Hillary Clinton was serving as secretary of state “while she signed off on the Uranium One deal that gave 20 percent of our uranium to Vladimir.” You see how the story changed? Hannity makes it seem like Clinton was the sole decider of the deal and that the deal literally put American uranium into Putin’s actual pockets.
Hannity went on to cast aspersions on former Attorney General Eric Holder (“Now, for me, there’s no way he didn’t know about this Russian nuclear plot”), current Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein, and current Deputy FBI Director Andrew McCabe (“They were the only ones who oversaw the FBI’s investigation into this Russian bribery, so there’s no way that they weren’t aware of what was happening”) and former FBI Director Robert Mueller (“You know, given what we now know, Mueller should not be in charge of any investigation as it relates to Russia or Russian collusion or election interference, because he has yet another massive conflict of interest”). As you are no doubt aware, several of these men are currently tied to the special counsel’s investigation into the Trump campaign’s alleged ties to Russia—a story that Hannity, as a de facto Trump surrogate, has good reason to want to discredit. “We will get to the truth,” Hannity promised before heading to commercial break. “The media is ignoring it. This is too important. This is going to be uncovered as one of the biggest scandals. Watch.”
By the time Fox & Friends got its hands on the story on Thursday morning, it had morphed from an alleged bribery scandal, as reported by the Hill, into something of world-historically sinister proportions. “All right, the Fox News alert is this,” said Ainsley Earhardt at the top of the 7 o’clock hour. “The Obama administration accused of helping the Russians build nukes while the Clinton Foundation lined their pockets with cash. A lot of it.” Seventeen minutes later, President Trump issued his tweet—and, frankly, you can see why the uranium story would seem like a big one to someone who appears to get his news exclusively from Fox.
The real story of the uranium-rights sale is likely a bit more complicated. To be clear, I still have no idea what the actual story here is, and at this point I am unwilling to say that the Hill’s coverage and Fox’s extrapolations are entirely baseless. If there’s malfeasance here, I want someone to find it, and if Fox finds it first, then good for Fox. But a close look at the story’s evolution and trajectory from 7 p.m. on Wednesday to 7 a.m. on Thursday indicated that investigative journalism is not the network’s only aim and that some of its personalities are far more interested in deflecting attention from President Trump’s troubles than in getting to the bottom of whatever this story actually is. Somehow, I don’t think the next few days of coverage will make it any clearer.