President Donald Trump dismissed concerns about his eldest son’s meeting with a Kremlin-linked lawyer and a former Soviet spy promising dirt on Hillary Clinton with a wave of his hand. “It’s called opposition research,” he said at a news conference in Paris on Thursday. A day earlier, the president had asserted, “I think many people would have held that meeting.”
As a professional opposition researcher who has been doing it for over a decade, I know nothing is farther from the truth.
During the 2016 election cycle I was the research director at American Bridge 21st Century, where I led the investigative efforts targeting Trump. The opposition research department at Bridge is one of the largest in politics, investigating Republicans at all levels of government to hold them accountable for their actions. Even in a partisan research environment, though, there are rules and standards.
At Bridge and everywhere else, a simple rule governs how we work: All information gathered must be lawfully obtained. Most opposition research manuals have instructions for not violating the law on the first few pages. You don’t break into opponents’ offices and take files or plant bugs, you don’t fake your opponents’ social security numbers to get their credit reports, and you certainly don’t sit in on meetings where a foreign attorney promises sensitive information obtained by a rival government.
Of course, given the inexperience of Trump’s team, you might get why they don’t understand what “opposition research” actually is. The term certainly evokes the image of a trench coat-clad private eye stalking homes with telephoto lenses, literally digging for dirt. But that’s not how opposition researchers investigate. Instead, much like an attorney preparing for a trial, a good opposition researcher assembles the case against their opponent by lawfully compiling the best portfolio of evidence. Usually that means tedious hours sifting through public records, news articles, court cases and—in Trump’s case—tweets and get-rich-quick scams.
Public records research and tracking opponents’ statements have yielded some of the most memorable opposition research attacks over the years. A paper trail from the federal Trade Adjustment Assistance program, which helps workers displaced by foreign trade, revealed that Mitt Romney profited from companies that outsourced jobs overseas. A review of campaign finance disbursements unearthed John Edward’s infamous $400 haircut. Court records exposed Trump’s continued exploitation of vulnerable seniors with his Trump University scheme; and, media monitoring, the process of watching candidate interviews, caught Todd Akin’s “legitimate rape” comment when even the interviewer overlooked it at the time.
But Trump Jr. wasn’t offered publically available information that had been lawfully pursued. He was promised “high level,” “sensitive information” from the Russian government, which opposes U.S. priorities throughout the globe. It’s a lure that implies illicitness—information unobtainable through overt means—and it would raise a red flag for any good opposition researcher. Plus, in my experience, when sources contact campaigns with lawfully obtained information, they provide more specifics of the subject matter and explain what sort of documentation they acquired. Sources will say they have a court record, a letter, or some other record they would like to pass on at an in person meeting. There was no explicit mention of this in the emails sent to Trump Jr., suggesting that the Russians possessed information so discrete that it could only be relayed through an in-person meeting at Trump Tower.
Trump Jr., according to his email response, “love[d] it” and took the meeting. What was he hoping for? Hacked emails? Stolen information? A KGB dossier?
Like any other political professionals, opposition researchers have an obligation to abide by the law and be good stewards of our electoral system. After all, we are working to elect people to enforce and create law. That means we must be proactive in our efforts to adhere to all rules and regulations, including those against using foreign spies to benefit your campaign.
It’s not just an ethical issue: Illegal opposition research risks exposing you and your client to serious legal problems, and researchers who have broken the rules, on both sides, have paid the price. For example, in 2006 a Democratic researcher obtained then-Senate candidate Michael Steele’s social security number from a court document and used it to fraudulently obtain Steele’s credit report. The researcher was charged with misdemeanor misrepresentation and later reached a plea agreement.
So what should have Donald Trump Jr. done when he received these emails? Not taken the meeting, for starters. And then, he should have turned the emails over to law enforcement. But he didn’t, and now, he and his father are once again trying to convince us that abhorrent behavior is normal.
I heard one response from the bowels of the right-wing internet alleging that the Clinton campaign “did the same thing.” The evidence? A Politico investigation showing the DNC gathered information from a Ukrainian political operative. Conveniently left out, though, is that those efforts were to expose Paul Manafort’s very problematic ties to Russia—information that was released to the public and obtained lawfully by a Ukrainian anti-corruption probe.
And that’s really the big point. When digging for “dirt,” you should not pursue information obtained illicitly, whether by Russian hackers or Nixonian Plumbers. And if by chance you stumble across it, you do what anyone running for office should do—report it to the authorities.