Background on the U.S.-Russia Uranium deal - Axios
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Background on the U.S.-Russia Uranium deal

Bill Frakes, Pablo Martinez Monsivais, Matt Rourke / AP

Two House committees are going to probe a controversial Russian uranium deal approved by the Obama administration. The deal gave Russia control of one-fifth of all uranium production capacity in the U.S.

Why it matters: Last week, Trump brought the deal back into light when he singled out Hillary Clinton and the Obama administration for their involvement, calling it "the biggest story that Fake Media doesn't want to follow." He was referring to a 2015 New York Times report that revealed the Clinton Foundation had received donations from leaders involved in the uranium deal, as well as a recent report by the Hill that claimed the Obama administration had signed off on it even though the FBI had evidence that Russia had used bribery and extortion to expand Moscow's atomic energy footprint in the United States.

What to watch: There was no evidence that Clinton personally got involved in the deal, as the Washington Post pointed out last year, despite President Trump repeatedly claiming that she did. Meanwhile, Senate Judiciary Committee chairman Chuck Grassley said last week that he's asking the agencies involved in approving the deal whether they knew about the criminal probe. Now, the House Intelligence Committee and the Oversight Committee are opening their own investigation into what probes took place when the deal was struck. These are the critical questions in the latest story.

The Uranium One deal

The Russian atomic energy agency, Rosatom, took control of the Canadian company Uranium One, which had uranium-mining stakes that stretched from Central Asia to the American West. The deal made Rosatom one of the world's largest uranium producers, per NYT, and brought Vladimir Putin closer to his goal of becoming one of the world's major atomic energy players.

Where things get complicated

The Clintons' involvement

  • A 2015 story by the New York Times' Jo Becker and Mike McIntire revealed that leaders of the Canadian mining industry that built, financed, and eventually made the sale of what would become Uranium One to Russia have been major donors to the Clinton Foundation.
  • And since uranium is considered a "strategic asset with implications for national security," the deal needed approval from several U.S. government agencies. Becker and McIntire note that the State Department, then run by Hillary Clinton, was among the agencies that signed off on the sale.
  • Canadian records show that as Moscow gradually took over Uranium One from 2009-2013, Uranium One's chairman, among others with ties to the company, used his family foundation to make a series of donations to the Clinton Foundation, totaling $2.35 million. Those contributions were not publicly disclosed by the Clintons, despite Hillary Clinton being under a White House agreement to publicly identify all donors.
  • In June 2010, Bill Clinton was paid $500,000 to speak in Moscow, the same month the Rosatom deal went through. The money came from a Russian investment bank with ties to the Kremlin.
  • The Clintons' defense: Brian Fallon, then a spokesman for Hillary's Clinton's initial presidential campaign, said there was no evidence supporting the theory that she, as secretary of state, helped support the interests of donors to the Clinton Foundation. He also noted that multiple U.S. agencies, as well as the Canadian government, had signed off on the uranium deal.

The Obama administration's involvement

  • A report last week by The Hill's John Solomon and Alison Spann says the FBI had evidence as early as 2009 that Russia had used bribery, kickbacks, and extortion to get a stake in the U.S. atomic energy industry — but the Obama administration allowed the deal to move forward anyway. The Justice Department kept investigating for four more years.
  • Why it matters: "The Russians were compromising American contractors in the nuclear industry with kickbacks and extortion threats, all of which raised legitimate national security concerns. And none of that evidence got aired before the Obama administration made those decisions," a person who worked on the case told The Hill.

Sen. Chuck Grassley's current probe

  • Grassley opened an investigation this month into potential "conflicts of interest" for Hillary Clinton and the Obama administration regarding the deal.
  • Last Wednesday, Grassley released a series of letters that he had sent to 10 federal agencies asking whether the Committee on Foreign Investment (CFIUS), which approved the transaction, was aware of the FBI probe. Note that the committee included then-Secretary of State Hillary Clinton.
  • In the letters, Grassley wrote that he's "not convinced" by previous "assurances" that there were no unresolved national security concerns.
  • Grassley's bottom line: "The fact that Rosatom subsidiaries in the United States were under criminal investigation as a result of a U.S. intelligence operation apparently around the time CFIUS approved the Uranium One/Rosatom transaction raises questions about whether that information factored into CFIUS' decision to approve the transaction," he wrote.

Joint House Intelligence and Oversight Committees probe

  • House Intel Committee Chairman Devin Nunes said Oct. 24 his committee and the House Oversight Committee want to learn: Whether or not there even was an FBI investigation, if there was a DOJ investigation, and why Congress was not informed on the matter.

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Federal judge blocks Trump from changing contraception rules

A month's supply of hormonal birth control pills. Photo: Rich Pedroncelli / AP

The Trump administration's decision to roll back access to birth control under the Affordable Care Act has been blocked temporarily by a federal judge in Pennsylvania, Buzzfeed reports. The new rules went into effect in October and allowed employers and universities to decline providing birth control coverage for "religious or moral" reasons.

Why it matters: The ruling is one of several recent court orders blocking a Trump administration law. Trump's series of travel bans as well as his order preventing transgender troops from serving in the military have also been halted in court.

U.S. District Judge Wendy Beetlestone agreed to grant Pennsylvania Attorney General Josh Shapiro's motion for a preliminary injunction, ruling that the Trump administration’s decision could potentially result in “enormous and irreversible” harm to the women of Pennsylvania. The injunction is applicable to all 50 states.

What's next: The block will remain in place until all arguments in the case are heard, which means the ACA requirement that all employers pay for contraception will stay in effect in the interim.

The Pennsylvania ruling joins a handful of similar lawsuits, including one in California, filed against the Trump administration's contraception rules.

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Battery exec leaves Dyson two years after $90 million buyout

Michigan entrepreneur Ann Marie Sastry has left vacuum-maker Dyson, two years after it acquired her controverial lithium-ion battery company, Axios has learned. The $90 million all-cash buyout remains one of the richest lithium-ion deals ever.

Quick take: Sources with knowledge of the situation were not certain of the circumstances of Sastry's departure. But it comes eight months after Dyson relinquished Sakti3's core battery patents, and doubts remain in the field regarding her main claim, asserted repeatedly — that she was on the verge of commercializing much-sought-after solid state battery technology.

Why it matters: For the last two years, Dyson founder James Dyson has spoken of ambitious plans to spend $1 billion to $3 billion to revolutionize batteries and electric cars. He has said said his electric car will ready for the road by 2020. At the time, Dyson's October 2015 purchase of Sakti3 was the spearpoint of the mission, and Sastry's departure suggests more internal turmoil than he has let on.

  • Sastry's Linkedin page says she left Dyson last month. She identifies herself as the founder and CEO of a company called Amesite, which a source said is involved with artificial intelligence and education.

In September, Dyson told Bloomberg that he had created two competing battery teams—Sakti3, plus another that was attempting a different approach to solid state. One explanation for Sastry's departure was that the other team won. In an interview with the Guardian, Dyson said the company's batteries were already more efficient than those in commercial electric vehicles.

At the time of the October 2015 deal and since, numerous leading U.S. battery researchers told me they wondered why Dyson had bought Sakti3. Despite Sastry's robust claims of the company's progress with solid state, she had revealed very little publicly and, since no one else had made much progress, the deep suspicion was that she was exaggerating. Indeed, in reporting for a story at the time of the buyout, former Sakti3 executives told me that the doubters were correct—the company's technology was rudimentary and nowhere near commercial.

Dyson did not offer a comment. Sastry could not be reached.

Dan Primack contributed to this story.

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Bob Corker flips to "yes" on tax reform

Sen. Bob Corker (R-Tenn.), the only holdout on the Senate's initial tax bill, announced Friday that he will vote "yes" on the GOP's tax cuts bill, less than an hour after Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.) said he will also vote yes.

Why it matters: Corker's vote essentially cements the tax bill's passage before the Christmas deadline.

His statement:

"After many conversations over the past several days with individuals from both sides of the aisle across Tennessee and around the country — including business owners, farmers, chambers of commerce and economic development leaders — I have decided to support the tax reform package we will vote on next week.

"This bill is far from perfect, and left to my own accord, we would have reached bipartisan consensus on legislation that avoided any chance of adding to the deficit and far less would have been done on the individual side with items that do not generate economic growth.

"But after great though and consideration, I believe that this once-in-a-generation opportunity to make U.S. businesses domestically more productive and internationally more competitive is one we should not miss. While many project that it is very possible over the next ten years we could be at least $500 billion short on a $43 trillion policy baseline, I believe this bill accompanied with the significant regulatory changes that are underway, and hopefully, future pro-growth oriented policies relative to trade and immigration , could have significant positive impact on the well-being of Americans and help drive additional foreign direct investment in Tennessee.

"In the end, after 11 years in the Senate, I know every bill we consider is imperfect and the questions becomes is our country better off with or without this piece of legislation. I think we are better off with it. I realize this is a bet on our country's enterprising spirit, and that is a bet I am willing to make."

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Release of texts between FBI officials to media was unauthorized

Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein. Photo: Andrew Harnik / AP

The Department of Justice said that some members of the media received early copies of the texts between FBI officials Peter Strzok and Lisa Page, and that the release was not authorized by the department, Business Insider reports.

Why it matters: The texts are part of an ongoing investigation; they were shared with lawmakers on Tuesday night, prior to Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein's testimony to the House Judiciary Committee, and were shared with reporters afterwards. But DOJ spokeswoman Sarah Isgur Flores said some reporters had already recieved them.

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Rubio officially yes on tax bill

Sen. Marco Rubio Photo: Pablo Martinez Monsivais / AP

Sen. Marco Rubio's office has confirmed to reporters that the senator will be voting for the GOP tax cuts bill now that the child tax credit has been enhanced to meet his standards.

Why it matters: This thing looks ready to pass.

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Report: FCC to fine Sinclair $13 million over undisclosed ads

AP Photo/Steve Ruark, File

The FCC plans to fine Sinclair Broadcasting Corporation milions of dollars over undisclosed cancer ads that aired during newscasts over a six-month period in 2016, Reuters reports.

The news comes one day after reports surfaced that the DOJ wants Sinclair to divest roughly 12 local broadcast stations in order for its $3.9 million merger with Tribune Media Company to be approved. It also comes as FCC Chairman Ajit Pai is being attacked for what is seen as a close relationship with Sinclair.

The fine addresses roughly 1,700 commercials that aired for the Huntsman Cancer Institute. According to the report, Sinclair has previously told reporters that the violations were unintentional.

Reuters reports that the fine was approved by the five-member FCC but has not yet been made public. Sinclair's management has always been right-leaning and conservative-leaning Pai has been accused by progressives as being favorable to the broadcaster.

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White House says Western Wall will stay in Israel

Pence and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu at a 2014 meeting in Israel. Photo: Amos Ben Gershom / GPO via Getty Images

A senior White House official told reporters today that the Trump administration believes the Western Wall in East Jerusalem will remain part of Israel in any future peace agreement with the Palestinians. The issue came up during a briefing to reporters on Vice President Mike Pence's upcoming visit to Israel.

Why it matters: The statement risks further infuriating the Palestinians at a time when the administration is trying to cool down the crisis created by President Trump's Jerusalem speech. The Western wall was occupied by Israel during the Six-Day War in 1967 and was never recognized as part of Israel by any country around the world.

Context: During previous negotiations between Israel and the Palestinians, the U.S. supported the Israeli position that the Western Wall should stay part of Israel, but it was never articulated publicly.

What to watch: The official said Pence will visit the Western Wall during his trip to Israel, and he will do it as the vice president and not as a private citizen. "We cannot envision any situation under which the Western Wall would not [be] part of Israel," the official said. "But as the president said, the specific boundaries of sovereignty of Israel are going to be part of the final status agreement."

The bottom line: After the briefing ended, the White House official noted that the U.S. "cannot imagine Israel would sign a peace agreement that didn’t include the Western Wall."

What's next: In the meantime, White House special envoy Jason Greenblatt will arrive in Israel early next week. It is unclear whether Greenblatt is going to meet any Palestinian officials. Palestinian Authority president Mahmoud Abbas announced he does not see the U.S. as an honest broker and said the Palestinians will not meet with Pence during his visit.

While in Israel, Greenblatt will meet Fernando Gentilini, European Union envoy for Middle East peace. The 28 leaders of EU member states announced yesterday they see Jerusalem as the shared capital of both Israel and Palestine — pushing back against Trump's announcement that the U.S. recognizes it as the capital of Israel.

The White House official added that given the timing, Greenblatt will stay on for Pence’s visit to provide any relevant support.

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Facebook admits that some social media use can be harmful

The Facebook logo is displayed on an iPad. Photo: Matt Rourke / AP

In a new installment of its "Hard Questions" series, Facebook acknowledges that social media can have negative (or positive) effects on people, depending on how they use it.

Why it matters: This might be the first public acknowledgment from the company that its product — and category in general — can have detrimental effects on people.

Facebook is also addressing the topic shortly after two former executives publicly criticized the company for what they described as exploiting human psychology.

Good and bad use, according to research cited by Facebook:

  • Bad: Passive use of social media — reading information without interacting with others — makes people feel worse. Clicking on more links or "liking" more posts than the average user also leads to worse mental health, according to one study.
  • Good: Active use — interacting with people, sharing messages, posts, comments, and reminiscing about past interactions — is linked to improved well-being.
  • It takes two: Interacting with other users is key, according to research. Simply posting on Facebook without interacting with other people isn't enough.

But: This isn't a capitulation from Facebook, admitting that it may be doing some harm. Instead, the company is simply telling us that we just need to use its social network in more positive ways.

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Law school is the popular choice again

Two law students hug after oral arguments in a moot court competition. Photo: Rogelio V. Solis / AP

The number of people planning to attend law schools next fall has increased by 12%, there have been 14% more law school applications and 23 law schools reported 40% increases in applications, according to data from the Law School Admission Council.

Why it matters: Interest in law school has been declining since before the recession, Wall Street Journal reports. Law school deans and advisors told WSJ that the upturn is at least in part due to the legal issues arising from Trump's administration, better discounts at law schools and a revived economy.

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Tillerson breaks with Trump on North Korea for the second time this week

Secretary of State Rex Tillerson urged, for the second time this week, that North Korea abandon its nuclear weapons and enter into negotiations with the U.S. and others, leaving room for a diplomatic solution.

Why it matters: Tillerson's rhetoric doesn't line up with the official position of the White House. President Trump has made clear that he doesn't think negotiations are a viable option in dealing with Pyongyang, and has instead focused on drawing attention to the strength of the U.S. military.

Tillerson's message to North Korea, made during a speech at a UN Security Council meeting Friday:

  • “We have been clear that all options remain on the table in the defense of our nation, but we do not seek, nor do we want, war with North Korea,” he said. “The United States will use all necessary measures to defend itself against North Korean aggression, but our hope remains that diplomacy will produce a resolution.”
  • "Our communication channels remain open. North Korea knows they're open. They know where the door is. They know where to walk through that door when they want to talk."
  • “It can reverse course, give up its unlawful nuclear weapons programs, and join the community of nations, or it can continue to condemn its people to poverty and isolation.”

Go deeper: Trump's gamble on North Korea