Attorney General Jeff Sessions has put the brakes on speculation that he will designate a special counsel to investigate Hillary Clinton—at least for now. Republican attacks on Clinton, however, will surely continue.
Republicans are having great fun rehashing conspiracy theories about Clinton’s supposed role in a uranium deal with the Russians, and casting her campaign’s run-of-the-mill opposition research and joint fundraising activities as somehow illegal. Democrats and watchdogs warn that if Sessions caves to President Trump’s demands for an investigation, he will corrode the Justice Department’s political independence.
But Republicans’ renewed anti-Clinton fervor will do more to hurt the GOP than Democrats in the long run. As veteran GOP political consultant Ed Rogers succinctly put it: “Clinton is irrelevant.” The more time and money Republicans waste on Clinton investigations, the longer they put off the work of governing. Now in power but bankrupt of ideas or accomplishments, Republicans can no longer win by simply attacking the opposition.
Even before such a probe has been authorized, the sudden push to investigate Clinton by Trump his allies is widely seen as a transparent bid to distract from special prosecutor Robert Mueller’s probe, which seems to turn up more Russia-Trump campaign links every day.
But if Republicans want to spend all their time rehashing Clinton controversies, Democrats have little reason to stop them. The George W. Bush administration spent five years investigating supposed voter fraud, and ended up concluding what voting rights advocates had said all along: that widespread fraud is virtually nonexistent. Similarly, any serious investigation of Clinton’s State Department or campaign dealings would likely backfire on the GOP. That’s because, like so many Trump team claims, the case against Clinton is built on thin air.
Take the allegation that millions contributed to the Clinton Foundation somehow persuaded Clinton as secretary of state to sell “a fifth of our uranium” to Russia, as Tucker Carlson claimed on Fox last month. The Washington Post calls this assertion “simply absurd.”
At issue is the 2010 sale of a Canadian company called Uranium One, which had mining rights in the U.S., to Russia’s nuclear regulatory agency, known as Rosatom. Republicans smell a rat because several Uranium One investors, including mining magnate Frank Guistra, had showered money on the Clinton Foundation. The Clintons deserve plenty of criticism for mixing their charitable and political activities, but the notion of a Uranium One quid pro quo has been thoroughly debunked—even by Fox News’s only fair and balanced news anchor, Shepard Smith.
For starters, the State Department was only one of several agencies to approve the deal, including the Nuclear Regulatory Commission, and there’s evidence that Clinton wasn’t involved at all in the decision. Guistra, moreover, sold his interests in Uranium One three years before the Russia deal even took place. And the deal involved not 20 percent of actual U.S. uranium, as Republicans claim, but of American production capacity. Seven years later, Uranium One’s share of U.S. production capacity has now shrunk to a mere 2.3 percent.
What about the claim that the Clinton campaign colluded with the Russians? It’s true that Democratic lawyer Marc Elias, representing the Clinton campaign and the Democratic National Committee, retained a Washington firm called Fusion GPS, to do opposition research on Trump. Fusion in turn hired former British intelligence officer Christopher Steele, who produced an unsubstantiated dossier purporting to show Trump’s Russia ties.
But proving Clinton-Russia collusion is a tough sell, given there were no actual Russians involved—just a Washington, D.C., firm and a British ex-spy. In fact, Fusion GPS first started digging up dirt on Trump at the behest of one of his (unnamed) GOP primary opponents. The Democrats went after information about Russia, which was doing its best to block Clinton’s election. Team Trump, by contrast, sought information from Russia, then covered its tracks. Paying an opposition researcher is standard practice in campaigns. Secretly meeting with foreign adversaries is not.
Also standard practice, for better or worse, is the joint fundraising that goes on between political candidates and parties. Republicans lobbied long and hard to convince the Supreme Court, in a 2014 case known as McCutcheon v. FEC, to lift the aggregate limits on individual donations to political parties, creating a massive loophole that lets big donors sidestep contribution limits and plow millions into joint fundraising committees. These committees let candidates and parties raise money together in one account, then divvy up the proceeds.
Now conservative champions of deregulation are shocked—shocked!—that the Clinton team and the DNC were pocketing big money through just such a joint fundraising agreement. Never mind that Trump, too, set up an identical joint fundraising arrangement with the Republican National Committee. The Democratic and Republican party committees that elect House and Senate candidates also raise money jointly with lawmakers on Capitol Hill as a matter of course.
Yes, Democratic Party organizer Donna Brazile has accused the DNC of playing favorites with Clinton before the primary. The DNC set up a joint committee with Bernie Sanders, too, but it only raised a token amount. Trump has tweeted that Clinton’s deal with the DNC violated campaign finance and money laundering laws, and that Justice should investigate. But it’s Democratic Party rules, not campaign-finance laws, that bar the DNC from meddling in primaries.
As a candidate, Clinton could not shake the appearance problems created by her many ethics blind spots—her Wall Street speeches, her emails, her Clinton Foundation ties, her high-dollar fundraisers. But while all this fueled plenty of breathless media coverage, and multiple federal and congressional investigations, it turns out that bad political judgment is not actually a crime. Republicans who insist otherwise, including those on Capitol Hill investigating Uranium One and Clinton emails, will have little to show for themselves.