The phrase “Clinton rules” has two distinct meanings. The enemies of Bill Clinton and Hillary Clinton use it to mean that the former president and former secretary of state flout the rules that apply to everyone else. Liberals, however, use it as shorthand for the way that journalists breathlessly abandon the ordinary standards of evidence to pursue pseudo-scandals against the pair, often cooked up by right-wing operatives. As the Daily Howler wrote in 2007, “Under ‘the Clinton rules of journalism,’ you can say any goddamn thing you want—as long as you say it about the Clintons.”
Both versions of the “Clinton rules” describe real phenomena, and with any given news story, it can be difficult to figure out which is at work. It’s easier if you start off by taking a strong stance on the Clintons either way—always assuming the worst of them or, alternately, anyone who criticizes them. But if you believe, as do I, that the Clintons have been demonized to a preposterous degree and that they’ve cut major ethical corners, it’s not easy to sort out who the real wrongdoers are in each new Clinton drama.
Take the recent New York Times article, headlined Cash Flowed to Clinton Foundation Amid Russian Uranium Deal. The story implies—but doesn’t clearly allege—that money funneled to the Clinton Foundation greased the wheels for a series of deals that left Rosatom, the Russian atomic-energy agency, in charge of 20 percent of American uranium reserves. As secretary of state, Hillary Clinton was part of a committee of cabinet officials that had the power to approve or reject the takeover.
The piece is the first fruit of a set of “exclusive agreements” made by the Times with Peter Schweizer, author of the forthcoming book Clinton Cash: The Untold Story of How and Why Foreign Governments and Businesses Helped Make Bill and Hillary Rich, to “pursue the story lines found in the book,” as the Times’s Amy Chozick put it. (The Washington Post and Fox News have also made agreements with Schweizer.) This alone is reason to approach the piece skeptically: Why would the Times enter into “exclusive agreements” with a right-wing hack like Schweizer? There is no reason the paper couldn’t have followed up Schweizer’s reporting on its own. And what did the arrangement entail? Chozick didn’t say, and a piece by Margaret Sullivan, the paper’s public editor, didn’t clarify much. “Any agreement limiting journalistic inquiry is unacceptable,” Sullivan wrote. “I believe…that such a thing didn’t happen here; that, rather, The Times merely pursued the angle it was most interested in, with no restrictions. But I still don’t like the way it looked.” Indeed, it looks terrible—a clear example of the second sort of Clinton rules.
Yet when you read the piece, it appears pretty damning: “Maybe,” you might start thinking, “the Clintons really have bent the rules in shocking ways.” The story begins in 2005 in Kazakhstan, where the mining magnate Frank Giustra, a generous Clinton donor, is negotiating a deal for stakes in three mines controlled by the state-run uranium agency. The Times strongly suggests that Bill Clinton made the deal happen, reporting that Clinton and Giustra flew to Kazakhstan together on the latter’s private plane. Soon after the visit, the Times reports, “Mr. Giustra’s fledgling company, UrAsia Energy Ltd., signed a preliminary deal giving it stakes in three uranium mines controlled by the state-run uranium agency Kazatomprom.”
Even if no quid pro quo is substantiated, it sounds sketchy. But not so fast! There are reasons to doubt that the Times account is entirely accurate. Take that 2005 trip to Kazakhstan by Clinton and Giustra: The Times first reported on it in 2008, but shortly after, Forbes writer Robert Lenzner found that the two men had not in fact traveled together, citing the flight manifest of Giustra’s plane to prove it. There’s no way to tell whether the Times is simply repeating an old mistake, or whether the Forbes debunking has itself been debunked.
So if the Times is building on the work of a right-wing smear merchant, and if it’s wrong about Clinton traveling with Giustra, does that mean we can dismiss the piece? Not yet. Giustra’s company later merged with another mining concern and became known as Uranium One; in 2008, as Uranium One’s stock price was falling, Rosatom began successful negotiations for a stake in the company. From 2009 to 2013, Uranium One’s chairman made four donations, totaling $2.35 million, to the Clinton Foundation, which were never disclosed—despite “an agreement Mrs. Clinton had struck with the Obama White House to publicly identify all donors,” according to the Times report. Can anyone in the Clinton camp explain that?
Beneath all the allegations about influence-peddling, this is the most disturbing charge in the whole Times story. There is, as yet, no evidence that Bill Clinton intervened with Kazakhstan’s dictator on Giustra’s behalf. And there is no evidence that Hillary Clinton did anything inappropriate as secretary of state to enable Russia to take over the company that Giustra helped build. But this failure of disclosure is itself a minor scandal, whether or not Hillary Clinton bears any direct responsibility for it. For now, the full story remains murky—but here, at least, is one rule that seems to have clearly been broken.