“For me, this was opposition research,” Donald Trump Jr. told Sean Hannity on Tuesday night. “Someone sent me an email, I can’t help what someone sends me. I read it, I responded accordingly.”
No. That’s not how it works.
Essential to political campaigns, opposition research is nonetheless often misunderstood by people who don’t work on them. “Oppo” has become annoyingly casual shorthand for “anything whatever from whoever, wherever, about the other guy.” (Or, lest we forget, in this case, woman.) A generous observer might give the political tenderfoot Trump Jr. a pass for not knowing this. Presidential campaigns, however, are not job-training programs.
No matter how Trump Jr. thinks political researchers spend their days, opposition research is not a dark art. (I’m not sure I’d even consider it any kind of art.) When done well, it’s a thoughtful, directed process of compiling known facts and figures about relevant life and career elements of an opponent to bolster an argument. But even when done badly, opposition research still has nothing to do with what Trump Jr. did. There are lines that trained and talented political operatives wouldn’t cross. The emails Trump Jr. released Tuesday show he has no idea where they are.
When I joined the Democratic National Committee for the 2004 presidential election, I thought I could approach opposition research through the lens of the scientific method, as I’d studied in the field of sociology. I was there to answer the question, “Why should George W. Bush be defeated?” From there, I would formulate hypotheses and seek evidence from the litany of things he had said and done. That litany came mostly from mundane sources such as Nexis or C-Span. Diligently, the research team would compile and cite every piece of data. And then, data could be packaged in any number of ways: by year, by topic, by state, for an ad, for a fundraiser, for a speech, and yes, even to assist the media in their reporting.
I confess I quickly learned that the day-to-day reality of opposition research wasn’t always quite that tidy. Here’s why: When people are invested in your candidate, they want to participate. They have ideas, suggestions, “hot tips.” Phone calls to the main line of the campaign get routed … to research. Generically addressed letters and emails get routed … to research. Friends of friends of your second cousin’s neighbor’s mail carrier somehow get your mobile number. (I never saw a serial killer-style missive written with letters cut from a magazine, but some came close.) However strange the source, everything was read, every voice mail listened to. Occasionally, a staffer might fall prey to a blocked number and be trapped listening to a long, fantastical story, offering only benign “mmhmm”s while colleagues offered sympathetic looks. You might even say researchers, however maligned, are unfailingly polite.
But in a normal campaign, that’s where it stops.
That is what “responding accordingly” means. Despite the constant noise from anywhere and everywhere, opposition research involves focused and supervised work. And I certainly believe then, and now, in adhering to ethical standards regarding sources and methods. If something seemed shady, it was — so we wouldn’t do it.
As the extraordinary news unfolded this week of the meeting Trump Jr. had with Russian lawyer Natalia Veselnitskaya last June — and especially after he released the astonishing email chain showing that he agreed to the meeting after being told he could get documents that “would incriminate Hillary” as “part of Russia and its government’s support” for Trump’s father’s campaign — a friend and I checked our consciences. “If someone ever reached out to us like that, we’d have … called our lawyers. Called the FBI. Right?” “Without question.” The prospect of responding the way Trump Jr. did is out of the realm of possibility, improbable, absurd. Meeting with a Kremlin-linked attorney for the purposes of receiving incriminating information about an opponent? Um, yes, that seems shady. It would never have happened in any campaign I’ve worked on, or any of the best ones I’ve worked against.
(By the way, “Political Opposition Research,” as Trump Jr. wrote in his statement on Twitter, isn’t capitalized. Researchers can be editors, too.)
I’ve seen some suggestions that meeting with a stranger from a hostile foreign nation may actually occur in the name of opposition research. Not on my watch. And not on the watch of professionals I know, red or blue. Political campaigns involve sharp elbows and barbs and anger and fear and, even, desperation, but I have never worked with any researcher who would exhibit such stunningly, alarmingly poor judgment.
Again, Trump Jr. is right — he can’t help what someone sent him. I don’t fault him for reading it. But if he believes that he “responded accordingly,” he is gravely wrong. As a nation of armchair criminal defense attorneys debates the many ways Trump Jr.’s meeting was a very bad idea, keep one thing in mind: What he did has nothing to do with “opposition research.”