President Donald Trump’s argument in an interview that it was acceptable, and even common, to use opposition research from foreign governments threw a spotlight Thursday on how campaigns research opponents and whether they draw a line at foreign interference.
Trump said in a Wednesday interview with ABC News he would consider accepting “oppo research” from a foreign government and wouldn’t necessarily alert the FBI. He also said members of Congress “all do it, they always have.”
Lawmakers from both parties quickly pushed back on that characterization. Both parties have campaign staff and outside groups that work to uncover negative information about political opponents, but that research does not involve help from foreign governments.
“I’ve lost track of how many campaigns I’ve been a part of, but can say with 1,000 percent confidence that I, and the people I’ve worked with, have never received ‘dirt’ on an opponent from a foreign adversary, let alone solicited it,” said Shripal Shah, vice president of American Bridge 21st Century, a Democratic opposition research super PAC.
A spokesman for the GOP opposition research group, America Rising, did not respond to a request for comment.
Standoff over stolen information
The leader of House Democrats’ campaign arm, the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee, used Trump’s comments to renew a call for Republicans to pledge not to use stolen information in campaigns.
Russian operatives hacked into the DCCC in 2016 and stole damaging research Democrats had done on their own candidates, which was then published online. The National Republican Congressional Committee, the House GOP’s official campaign arm, and the Congressional Leadership Fund, a super PAC aligned with House GOP leadership, referenced the stolen memos in ads. (The NRCC was hacked as well in 2018, but it is not clear who was behind the cyber attack.)
Leaders of the NRCC and the DCCC were close to an agreement last year to not use stolen information in campaigns, but negotiations broke down over using that information if it was in the public domain.
Following Trump’s comments, current DCCC Chairwoman Cheri Bustos called on her NRCC counterpart, Tom Emmer, to agree not to use stolen information, accusing the committee and Trump of embracing hacked materials and making the country vulnerable to more frequent attacks.
NRCC spokesman Chris Pack said in a statement to CQ Roll Call on Thursday that Bustos “is not serious about an agreement on cyber-attacks because if she was, then she wouldn’t be sending out an endless barrage of juvenile press releases to the national press corps on the matter.”
Pack said the NRCC was “actively working with outside experts and law enforcement to make sure we do not fall victim to another attack.”
Approached by CQ Roll Call later Thursday, Emmer declined to say how he personally felt about using stolen information during a campaign and refused to comment on Trump’s assertions about acceptance of aid from foreign actors.
When asked about Bustos’ call to make that pledge and for his personal position on the issue, the Minnesota Republican repeatedly answered, “We have responded.” He said his response was “a matter of public record,” but Pack later clarified that Emmer was referring to the statement sent to CQ Roll Call earlier Thursday.
Informed multiple times that the NRCC statement did not make clear the committee’s position on using stolen information, Emmer said, “It’s in English, it’s pretty clear.”
Asked how he would advise a congressional candidate approached by a foreign actor with information about an opponent, he said, “Again, I’m not going to comment on what the president said.”
Pack wrote in an email later Thursday afternoon that the NRCC agreed with House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy “that we do not want to have a foreign government interfere in any of our elections and we should all stand united on that.”
Hiring researchers vs. free foreign aid
South Carolina GOP Sen. Lindsey Graham deflected criticism of Trump by drawing an analogy to a lawyer for Hillary Clinton’s campaign in 2016 helping to fund research on Trump by a British national, Christopher Steele.
“I believe that it should be practice for all public officials who are contacted by a foreign government with an offer of assistance to their campaign — either directly or indirectly — to inform the FBI and reject the offer. … But this has not been recent practice and we saw that come to a head during the 2016 presidential campaign,” Graham said.
“During that race, we had a major American political party hire a foreign national, Christopher Steele, to dig up dirt on an American presidential candidate,” he continued.
But campaign finance experts said Graham’s argument ignores the difference between soliciting intelligence on an opponent from a foreign entity and hiring a foreign national in a standard commercial transaction to do campaign work.
“Opposition research is not illegal and can lead to important information voters may be interested in knowing,” said Erin Chlopak, a campaign finance expert with the Campaign Legal Center and former lawyer with the Federal Election Commission. “Depending on the nature of information, it may require ascertaining information from foreign countries. There’s a difference between a foreign country inserting itself into our elections and offering free services or contributions to influence our election, and commercial transactions.”
Donald Trump Jr., the president’s oldest son, solicited information from Russian nationals without payment, special counsel Robert S. Mueller III said in his final report. That invites corruption by creating the expectation that Trump or his associates would return the favor, Chlopak said.
Where’s the line?
Opposition research involves finding dirt, whether it’s questionable use of tax breaks, nasty details in divorces or other legal proceedings, or trying to draw connections, however tenuous, between a candidate and unsavory characters or issues that might be unpopular with target voters.
Both parties do it, and as the DCCC hack exposed, they sometimes do it to their own candidates to prepare for potential attacks. But Democratic consultants said Trump’s comments mischaracterized how it actually works.
“Even some of the more unethical candidates I’ve encountered in the last 20 years would have had the sense to run away from receiving foreign intelligence,” said Rodell Mollineau, a Democratic strategist and former president of American Bridge.
“It’s a far stretch from a 30-year old research professional using publicly available databases to find information, to a foreign intelligence agent digging up dirt from God knows where, using possibly illegal methods,” Mollineau said.
Opposition research typically includes poring through databases, news clips and social media platforms, Mollineau said. The goal is often to catch a candidate saying one thing during the campaign when he or she has said the opposite previously.
There are scenarios in which researchers receive tips, but that is not very common.
“It’s not like TMZ where there’s a tip line and people are calling in five times a day,” Mollineau said.
The line for using that information or contacting law enforcement depends on who is providing it and how the source obtained those details.
An approach from someone associated with a foreign government would prompt a campaign to reach out to law enforcement, in part because that source would be acting in the interest of another country, Mollineau said. It is also illegal to accept a campaign contribution from a foreign government.
Opposition researchers would also likely notify law enforcement if the information were obtained illegally. The most high profile example of this came during the 2000 presidential campaign when Democratic nominee Al Gore received a briefing book detailing how his GOP opponent George W. Bush was preparing for an upcoming debate. The Gore campaign turned it over to the FBI in part because it did not know if the book was stolen from the Bush team.
“This actually isn’t as hard as people think,” Mollineau said. “If it smells bad, it likely is bad, which is why the simplest thing to do is, as [FBI Director] Christopher Wray said, to contact the FBI.”