During his chaotic 77-minute press conference on Thursday, President Donald Trump was on the defensive about his relationship with Russia. One key point he made, attempting to prove that that he wasn’t soft on Moscow, was to paint the previous administration as weak in handling the Kremlin — by claiming again that Hillary Clinton gave Russia “20 percent of our uranium” as secretary of state.
Here’s what he actually said during a rambling attempt to convince reporters that his Russia strategy was sound and not the product of some covert relationship that compromises the integrity of his policies:
By the way, it would be great if we could get along with Russia. Just so you understand that. Tomorrow, you will say, "Donald Trump wants to get along with Russia; this is terrible." It is not terrible.
It is good. We had Hillary Clinton try to do a reset. We had Hillary Clinton give Russia 20 percent of the uranium in our country. You know what uranium is, right? It’s this thing called nuclear weapons. And other things. Like lots of things are done with uranium. Including some bad things.
But nobody talks about that. I did not do anything for Russia. I've done nothing for Russia. Hillary Clinton gave them 20 percent of our uranium. Hillary Clinton did a reset, remember, with the stupid plastic button that made us all look like a bunch of jerks?
The very first part of what Trump said, about it being desirable to get along with Russia, makes sense. It might seem counterintuitive during a time when much of the American public is enraged at Russia for allegedly engaging in election-related cyberattacks and finds the idea of cooperating with its authoritarian government to be distasteful. But powerful countries getting along as well as they can with their powerful rivals can be a good thing, as it makes it less likely that they'll end up in costly conflict with each other, even if their interests are at odds on many matters. And that is indeed why, as he points out, the Obama administration made serious attempts to try to improve US-Russian ties.
But the claim that Clinton gave 20 percent of America’s uranium to Russia is incorrect and clearly misleading. Trump is referring to Russia’s nuclear power agency purchasing a majority stake in a Toronto-based energy company between 2009 and 2013. The company had mines and land in a number of US states with huge uranium production capacity — a move the US State Department signed off on. But PolitiFact did a thorough fact-check of the claim last year when Trump first made it on the campaign trail, and found the following faults with it:
- The mines, mills, and land the company holds in the US account for 20 percent of the US’s uranium production capacity, not actual produced uranium.
- The State Department was one of nine federal agencies and a number of additional independent federal and state regulators that signed off on the deal.
- President Obama, not Secretary Clinton, was the only person who could’ve vetoed the deal.
- Since Russia doesn’t have the legal right to export uranium out of the US, its main goal was likely to gain access to the company’s uranium assets in Kazakhstan.
- Crucially, the main national security concern was not about nuclear weapons proliferation, as Trump suggests, but actually ensuring the US doesn’t have to depend too much on uranium sources from abroad, as the US only makes about 20 percent of the uranium it needs. An advantage in making nuclear weapons wasn’t the main issue because, as PolitiFact notes, “the United States and Russia had for years cooperated on that front, with Russia sending enriched fuel from decommissioned warheads to be used in American nuclear power plants in return for raw uranium.”
Trump is desperate to repudiate claims that he’s Putin’s stooge
The general inaccuracy of Trump’s claim isn’t surprising; at this point, it would be more shocking if he strung together five minutes’ worth of sentences that weren’t packed with falsehoods and lies.
But his misleading comments are in service of a broader goal: to push back against the notion that he’s at Vladimir Putin’s beck and call. Trump wants to make the case that the Obama administration is the real culprit when it comes to being too easy on the Kremlin by catering to its geopolitical interests for little in exchange. And he’s exaggerating points about uranium to make that case.
By contrast, Trump vows that he’s ”done nothing for Russia.” That’s not really true. Trump has constantly pushed back against the intelligence community’s claims about Russia’s interference with the US election, and said that even if they’re true, he doesn’t understand all the fuss about it — making it less likely that the GOP will investigate Russia’s conduct rigorously. And his open embrace of Putin in the public sphere for many years has helped boost the Russian leader’s stature among the nationalist right in the US and Europe as a strong leader and a vital ally against Islamist terrorism around the world.
There’s also the possibility that Trump’s team has in fact floated concrete gifts to Putin. We know that his former national security adviser, Michael Flynn, spoke about sanctions with the Russian ambassador on the phone the very day that Obama slapped new sanctions on Russian intelligence agencies for their role in using cyberattacks to interfere with the presidential election. While we can’t confirm the substance of the call, two government officials claimed in interviews with the Washington Post that Flynn cautioned Russia against reciprocating Obama’s sanctions because Trump would be in a position to lift them when he entered office. If that’s true, that might in part explain why Putin overrode his own foreign minister in declaring that he’d wait for the next administration before reacting to sanctions.
There’s plenty of evidence that suggests Trump simply really likes Russia. He’ll use whatever points he can to distract from it.