ROBERT SIEGEL, HOST:
Hillary Clinton says the State Department, when she was secretary, did not do favors for foreign interests in exchange for donations to the Clinton Foundation. She was denying accusations in a forthcoming book titled "Clinton Cash: The Untold Story Of How And Why Foreign Governments And Businesses Helped Make Bill And Hillary Rich." The author is a former fellow at the conservative Hoover Institution. The Clinton camp calls it an attack and a distraction. Well The New York Times reports today on certain donations to the Foundation, and also a half-a-million-dollar speaker's fee to former President Bill Clinton back in 2005. And the report links those payments to parties with an interest in getting the U.S. government to approve foreign ownership of some American uranium mines. Jo Becker is one of The New York Times reporters who wrote this story. Welcome to the program.
JO BECKER: Thanks so much for having me.
SIEGEL: This is a very complicated tale that we can't do full justice to in the few minutes we have, so give us a nutshell summary. First, who wanted what from the U.S. government?
BECKER: A company named Uranium One based in Canada needed approval to sell a 51-percent stake of the company to an arm of the Russian government called Rosatom.
SIEGEL: And the company Uranium One owned uranium mines in the United States.
BECKER: It did. It also owned stakes in large mines - very lucrative mines in Kazakhstan, and that actually was primarily what the Russian government was interested in. But because they had these mines in Wyoming, the deal required government approval.
SIEGEL: Uranium being a strategic commodity, and therefore it requires a rather high level of approval from the U.S.
BECKER: Yeah. Multiple agencies had to sign off on this including the State Department. And why that's interesting is that the men who had built and financed this company behind this deal were some of Bill Clinton's biggest donors, and one man, the chairman of the company, had donated, we found, 2.35 million dollars in donations that the Clinton Foundation had failed to disclose.
SIEGEL: Had failed to disclose - you mean there was no public record of receiving the donation to the Foundation?
BECKER: Right. When Hillary Clinton became Secretary of State, the Obama White House asked her to sign a memorandum of understanding because Bill Clinton was going to continue to raise money for his foundation. And part of the memorandum of understanding was that she would disclose all donations. The other part of it was that they wouldn't take foreign donations while she was Secretary of State. And she's now saying that they won't take foreign donations if she becomes president, but what the story really underscores is sort of the special challenges when you have a foundation that's raising money from foreign interests that couldn't contribute, by the way, to an American political campaign, but can to these kinds of foundations.
SIEGEL: There's also the eye-popping $500,000 speaking fee that Bill Clinton received in Russia. What is the connection, if any, to the entire uranium mine acquisition?
BECKER: Yeah. That was paid by Renaissance Capital, an investment bank in Russia that has links to the Kremlin. And basically they invited Bill, and Bill gave the speech just after the Russians had announced their desire to acquire this 51-percent stake in this company, but before the U.S. government had signed off.
SIEGEL: You quote Brian Fallon, the spokesman for Hillary Clinton's presidential campaign, as saying that no one has - this is a quote. "No one has ever produced a shred of evidence supporting the theory that Hillary Clinton ever took action as Secretary of State to support the interests of donors to the Clinton Foundation." Would you dispute that, or would you have to concede that's the case?
BECKER: Well, I don't think that's actually what the story is about. It's sort of a straw-man argument. But, look, we say very clearly in the story that lots of people give money and they may or may not be wanting to buy influence. Whether they get that is unknown, right? I mean, it's possible that in the context of that time, which was 2010 - we were in the middle of a reset, we wanted better relations with Russia, we wanted their cooperation on getting new sanctions against Iran - that this deal would have gone through anyway. The issue is, though, when you have these donations and you have policy, it's the nexus of all of it that create these kind of issues and issues, I think, that the Clinton campaign have been trying to address in their sort of a series of different policies that they say, you know, well, we won't take money from foreign governments if she becomes president, etc. She - the other part of your question is, you know, we don't know whether Mrs. Clinton was briefed on this. The campaign says it was decided at a lower level and that she didn't intervene.
SIEGEL: The approval of the acquisition of Uranium One?
BECKER: Exactly. We don't know the answer to that. And this process - it's called a CFIUS review - is shrouded in secrecy. By law, actually, any documents related to it are exempt from public disclosure laws. But certainly, in today's climate where you have Mr. Putin annexing the Crimea and Americans levying sanctions against him, the context today is quite different. And we talked to people who say, you know, there's really reason to be concerned about this deal in today's climate because among other things it made Russia one of the largest uranium suppliers. Secondly, the uranium mines that the Russians really wanted were the Kazakh mines. However, the American mines comprise 20 perecent - 20 percent, that's quite a lot - of all known uranium in the United States.
SIEGEL: You acknowledge in the story a - some relationship with Peter Schweizer, the author of this forthcoming book, saying that some of the connections between Uranium One and the Clinton Foundation were unearthed by Peter Schweizer, a former fellow at the right-leaning Hoover Institution. Mr. Schweizer provided a preview of material in the book to The Times which scrutinized his information and built upon it with its own reporting. This is not Mr. Schweizer's reporting. This is The New York Times reporting that we're reading today.
BECKER: Yes. We - as we would with any source, we pull the public records ourselves, we verify anything that we're going to put in the newspaper.
SIEGEL: Jo Becker of The New York Times, thanks for talking with us today.
BECKER: Thanks for having me.
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