What Hurts a Political Opponent in the Age of Trump?

Ouch.

Bradley Beychok was back in his office on November 9, 2016, about half an hour before Hillary Clinton was due to give her concession speech. He’d been there, in a building just north of Washington’s Chinatown, until about 2 a.m. the previous night, and now — after he’d tried getting a few hours of sleep — his phone was ringing. David Brock, his boss, was on the other line from New York. There wasn’t much time to chat before Clinton stepped in front of the cameras, but the ’90s conservative provocateur turned Hillary-and-Bill confidant and super-PAC honcho told his longtime colleague that they had to act quickly to chart a future for their liberal opposition research and media monitoring operation.

“He said, ‘[In] November and December, we’re going to get together and regroup,’” Beychok recalled. Two days later, back in D.C., Brock was making plans to bring together hundreds of the party’s top lawmakers, donors, and operatives in Florida over Donald Trump’s inauguration weekend to pitch them on that new vision that he and Beychok now had to figure out. “I said, ‘Y’all are nuts,’” the Louisiana native continued on a recent Wednesday morning, shaking his head. “But it forced us to do an internal autopsy of what we did wrong and what we can do better.”

Beychok’s hesitance was understandable: The course ahead was far from obvious for American Bridge 21st Century, the then-six-year-old super-PAC they had built to be the Democratic Party’s biggest outside group devoted to digging up dirt on Republicans (on top of all the work already being done by the Democratic National Committee). After Trump stormed the White House by blowing past a daily barrage of scandals, some Democrats soon began questioning not only whether opposition research was still worth the trouble, but whether all the old rules of politics were obsolete. That meant it was time to start experimenting.

In the ensuing weeks, Brock curved that line of thinking: Lefties needed to stop reading the old rulebook so strictly, and to amp up their aggression, he concluded — especially when it comes to “oppo,” as it’s commonly known in the business. If the standard, respectable digging methods had gotten the party nowhere in 2016 — that is, if voters just didn’t care about every last scandal in the muddiest information environment the country had seen in decades — it was worth at least trying to loosen those tactics up a bit. In 2010, when the group launched ahead of Barack Obama’s reelection campaign, Brock had imposed a set of self-regulations on the staff that would cultivate an air of respectability for the mudslingers. He decided to explode those rules.

In the old days, the group’s trackers — junior staffers with cameras who follow Republicans around, waiting for a gaffe — were instructed to identify themselves as American Bridge operatives when they got to an event, and they were told to remain passive, not asking questions or trying to trick their targets. Rule eliminated. (It took just until May 2017 for the group to post unflattering footage of a Pennsylvania gubernatorial candidate grabbing a tracker’s camera and then angrily pushing him away.) In the pre-Trump era, the group stopped short of snooping for dirt beyond publicly available documents or clips. The no-digging-and-no-working-the-phones-and-no-sniffing-around-in-person guideline is now gone, fully thrown out the window by the time American Bridge dispatched staff to Alabama to look into Roy Moore last winter. And, after consulting local campaign finance and consent laws, Brock convinced some of his funders to set up a small fund that trackers can now tap into if they want to pay their way into GOP candidates’ private events where that’s legal. That move opened up a massive new stream of potentially damaging material for Republicans who think they’re speaking behind closed doors to friends and supporters. The tactic didn’t take long to pay off, either: it’s how the group caught Ed Gillespie, 2017’s Republican candidate for governor of Virginia, calling the northern part of his state “enemy territory” in a private fundraiser last September.

American Bridge’s bet is that most of the old laws of politics remain intact, but that it takes a new kind of alert system to call out violations. At a time that Missouri’s Republican governor is hanging onto his seat while he fights a handful of scandalous charges — including an explicit accusation of sexual assault — a Montana GOP congressman was elected one day after body-slamming a reporter (and is now favored for reelection), and, of course, Trump remains firmly ensconced in the Oval Office, it’s not clear that politicians around the country are so confident in the old rules’ stability.

So, in mostly unremarkable office buildings across the Washington area, both parties and their top diggers have spent the last year working through how to effectively rebuild for 2018 and 2020 after climbing out from 2016’s wreckage. And the opposition-research pros are now coming around to answers to the central question facing both sides today: Have Americans’ values changed in the last three years? (Not necessarily.) But what about the way they consume and think about politics? (Definitely.)

“Everything has a shorter shelf life because of Trump,” Beychok, Bridge’s president, told me as he sat on a large orange couch around which, minutes earlier, about a dozen of his staffers had been running through progress updates on their ongoing oppo projects. They brought up leading GOP Senate, gubernatorial, and House candidates, as well as Trump and his Cabinet, as part of the pitch meeting they hold every other Wednesday morning. The young, Democratic operatives detailed reams of local police reports, candidate schedules, and Freedom of Information Act requests they were digging into, from Florida to California, and they spitballed about which local reporters they should try pitching on their findings. They also discussed how, exactly, they should be deploying their trackers, at one point musing about the feasibility and legality of deploying a drone with a camera in a crowded city. They’d sent a few staffers out on boats before, but they’d never used a drone. The room’s walls were lined with old framed prints of newspaper and magazine stories detailing successful hits the group had landed on Republicans.

“I’ll cede,” Beychok said, “that it’s not the same playbook.”

***

The walls of Joe Pounder’s fifth-floor corner office above a Target in the gray Rosslyn neighborhood of Arlington, Virginia, are also crammed with framed newspaper front pages. Behind a collection of Washington Nationals bobbleheads, and above the shelves of books about prominent Democrats, there’s the Miami Herald from the day after Marco Rubio was elected to the Senate in 2010, inches from the New York Times report on Republicans’ big wins in 2014’s midterms. Sitting behind his desk with a MacBook open and wearing a black fleece Patagonia vest over a windowpane button-down while downing coffee from a large paper cup, Pounder cuts the exact profile one might expect of a high-level Republican political pro. But a stroll through the rest of the slick headquarters of America Rising, the five-year-old GOP answer to American Bridge, feels more like a tour of a mid-stage tech start-up — complete with blond wood floors and bright yellow painted trim — than a conservative committee, aside from the occasional understated nod to the Republican Party (like the blown-up photo of a herd of elephants behind the reception desk).

“It used to be that oppo, in the early 2000s, 1990s, was treated as — you know — that one guy, maybe in the basement, who’s digging into these guys, he’s looking for the silver bullet or whatnot: the Lee Atwater–type mentality toward it all,” Pounder, the group’s CEO and a veteran of the Republican National Committee, the George W. Bush, Mitt Romney, John McCain, and Rubio presidential campaigns, and Bush’s White House, explained. “But gradually, what’s happened more and more every cycle, is oppo has gone from the basement, I think, to the senior campaign management level.”

That trend has accelerated since November 2016, as Republicans aim to protect their Senate majority and wreak havoc on Democrats’ 2020 presidential primary. If one Democratic takeaway from Trump’s rise was that some of their opposition-research operations needed an overhaul, among Republicans’ big lessons from Clinton’s disaster was that their tactics were working spectacularly. If anything has changed, both Pounder and his rivals on the left think, it’s the speed of the news cycle and voters’ patience, not anything more profound about the nation’s character or priorities. So, down a hallway and around a corner from Pounder, in a bright white room packed with television and computer screens — the “war room” — about half a dozen young men sit in rows poring over footage of Democrats’ events, logging noteworthy moments and flagging the usual potential missteps to colleagues via Slack.

Some of their clips end up on AR Intel, a new subscription “news” site that Rising launched in March to serve as a central repository for much of its findings. Bridge will soon formally unveil its own such site — likely to be named the “American Ledger” — aiming to serve as a resource for campaigns, allies, and reporters. At a time that voters are hyperdistracted by the barrage of news, the idea on both sides is to get more quick hits in front of voters more consistently, often on social media, to build negative story lines about opponents over more extended periods of time. “It takes longer than ever for narratives to form within the cycle,” Pounder said. “It’s not enough just to have a couple flip-flops. You need to have 15 years’ worth of flip-flops to really drive a narrative.”

“Gone are the days, unless it’s really explosive, of a quick one-hit changing the nature of a race,” he continued, talking to me on yet another day overwhelmed by White House–centric breaking news — from the unraveling of Ronny Jackson’s VA nomination to Trump’s describing Kim Jong Un as “very honorable,” to a fresh round of bombast about the Iran nuclear deal. “It’s just … it’s not doable.”

That dynamic is one reason Bridge has started trying to distribute its research earlier in election cycles than it used to, no longer waiting for GOP primaries to end before weighing in. And it’s why Rising has put a new emphasis on digging up the kinds of primary-source documents it didn’t always favor: Pounder says 40 percent of all the FOIA-style requests his group has ever submitted came in 2017, and his firm has for the first time identified operatives all over the country who are willing to dig into county-courthouse documents.

Already, Bridge has jumped into some of its party’s special-election wins: the group dug up Roy Moore’s comparison of preschool education to Nazi indoctrination, which ended up in one of Doug Jones’s final ads, and it was also behind a clip of GOP candidate Rick Saccone appearing flippant toward families affected by opioid abuse, which was then featured in Democrat Conor Lamb’s closing ad barrage.

“If I go back to after November ’16, as someone who founded this group, and we had a loss, my worry was that, to the extent that Trump was immune or had Teflon — or whatever you want to call it — that it would transfer to other Republicans,” said Brock. “And there’s no evidence of that. In fact, the copycat Trump candidates that we’ve seen so far — Moore and Saccone — have failed, partly by falling victim to basically traditional oppo that wouldn’t necessarily work against Trump.” A few days after I spoke with Brock, West Virginia’s Don Blankenship, yet another such candidate, lost his Senate primary, too.

Yet the newly sclerotic environment is also why both parties have already flung the doors wide open on their 2020 research, aiming to replicate Republicans’ work to drag down Clinton in 2016.

“Republicans were successful [in 2016] because we ran a multiyear-long campaign against Hillary Clinton, with an investment in opposition research a big part of that, in an effort to define her to the American people. It worked because it was organized and thoughtfully laid out,” said Mike Reed, the RNC’s research director. When Rising opened in 2013, it immediately began pulling together its research on Clinton. Now, it has contracts with both the RNC and a Trump-aligned outside group as it builds research books on the wide range of potential Democratic candidates in 2020. Hardly a day now goes by that the group doesn’t blast out another criticism of one of them to the Washington press.

While Bridge had begun compiling potential 2020 hits on likely Clinton challengers back when she was considered the sure winner of 2016’s race, both it and the DNC — home to the party’s central research shop — quickly changed course, anticipating possible Republican challenges to Trump. The DNC, for one, has, since the late spring of 2017, been updating its research on a group including Vice-President Mike Pence, Ohio governor John Kasich, U.N. Ambassador Nikki Haley, and Nebraska senator Ben Sasse.

And by the end of April of this year, Bridge had already tracked 202 events featuring retiring Arizona senator Jeff Flake, a Trump critic who’s increasingly thought of as a potential 2020 challenger to the president. The group has 114 hours of Flake footage at its fingertips, and its research book on him is now over 2,000 pages. That’s about as long as its file on Pence, who’s the subject of nearly 400 hours of clips in American Bridge’s database. The Kasich database is up to almost 500 hours.

***

Mornings at Bridge begin around 9:30, when staffers run through their Republican targets’ daily schedules. Much of Democrats’ public opposition work these days focuses on GOP candidates up for election in 2018, but the first item up for discussion around the conference room table is Trump’s itinerary. Second is Pence’s, and the Cabinet’s comes third.

While Trump’s approval rating has fluctuated, often nearing historic lows, many of the flashier developments to which that might be attributed — the Russia story line and Mueller’s probe, or Stormy Daniels, or even 2016’s Access Hollywood tape — are far from the traditional oppo realm. Instead, aiming at the Cabinet and sub-Cabinet positions, Democrats have focused much of their fire on the appearance of corruption and the idea that Trump has filled, not drained, the swamp.

Yet as 2020 approaches, the question of which central narrative to build against Trump looms ever larger. The answer may lie in a research file on Capitol Hill.

During the campaign, the DNC’s research team fanned out across the country and collected and analyzed at least 7,000 Trump lawsuits, Adrienne Watson, the DNC’s Trump war room director, told me. Matched with the committee’s ongoing digging into the president’s Russian ties, that database serves as a multilayered resource for Democrats aiming to keep the White House on its toes.

A year and a half ago, recognizing the need for continuity in the party’s years-long anti-Trump project, then-DNC chair Donna Brazile chose to keep that department intact as the broader committee retooled after 2016. It was the only division in the building that didn’t face massive turnover.

That means the party’s ongoing behind-the-scenes anti-Trump deep dives are now about halfway through their Year Three.

“In 2016, the Republicans had four years to continually build their anti-Clinton operation because they knew who they’d be facing. Democrats were building the Trump oppo plane while flying, because no one thought he’d emerge as the nominee from a field of [17] — all of whom we had to research,” said Brock. “In 2020, the shoe is on the other foot.”

What Hurts a Political Opponent in the Age of Trump?