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An Introduction To The Dark Arts Of Opposition Research

If you’re looking for someone to teach you the dark arts of opposition research, Alan Huffman is your man. A former daily news reporter and a political researcher for, by his count, more than 100 candidates, Huffman is the co-author of “We’re With Nobody,” a look inside the “oppo” industry.

That industry once aimed to stay out of the spotlight but now finds itself at center stage. Amid swirling questions and investigations into how campaigns obtain negative information on their opponents, recent reports on organizations linked to both Democrats and Republicans in 2016 have drawn attention and criticism.

A lawyer representing Hillary Clinton’s campaign and the Democratic National Committee reportedly paid a group called Fusion GPS to conduct opposition research, and that group hired former British spy Christopher Steele to dig up dirt on Donald Trump. (Fusion GPS had also worked with Republican interests during the 2016 primaries.) Steele’s salacious dossier of allegedly compromising information gathered by the Russians — much of it unproven and denied by Trump — was eventually leaked to the media. Complicating matters further are accusations that Steele paid sources to get information. And it has been reported that a company that consulted for Trump’s campaign, Cambridge Analytica, had reached out in 2016 to WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange about exploiting emails from Democrats that Russia had allegedly hacked and passed on to WikiLeaks. Assange said he rebuffed the company’s requests.

We asked Huffman, who has worked with candidates from both major parties but mostly works with Democratic campaigns, to help us understand how campaigns and the media use opposition research, and how to interpret the latest revelations. This interview has been edited for clarity and length.

Hilary Krieger: Could you start by telling us a bit about the history of opposition research — how it developed and evolved?

Alan Huffman: People have been doing oppo for centuries. It’s just what you do: You try to find out the strengths and weaknesses of your opponent. I don’t really know when it sort of morphed into also finding out your own strengths and weaknesses. But the attacks that were made on political candidates go back to the origins of the country.

The process of getting that information sort of stayed submerged until really the last decade or so, maybe the last two decades, because when we [Huffman and research partner Michael Rejebian] first started doing it, the candidates were all really paranoid about anyone finding out. You know, like your opponent’s going to hold a press conference and say, “My opponent has hired a private investigator to dig up dirt on me.” But everybody knows that it’s done now.

Krieger: So can you give me an example from hundreds of years ago? Do you have any great stories of somebody like Thomas Jefferson doing oppo?

Huffman: I remember even back in the Roman days that it was not unusual for the Senate to dig up dirt on opponents — sometimes with violent results. [Huffman later emailed to relate a story that Rejebian wrote about in their book: “One case of early American oppo came during the 1800 presidential election between incumbent John Adams and Thomas Jefferson, the latter of whom reportedly hired a ‘scandalmonger’ named James Callender, who had previously revealed a romantic tryst between Alexander Hamilton and a married woman, to research (and promote) an allegation that Adams for some reason wanted to go to war with France. Callender was subsequently jailed for sedition, and after Jefferson was elected, Callender sought a job as a postmaster. When he didn’t get the job, he publicly disclosed his arrangement with Jefferson, along with allegations that he’d dug up about Jefferson and his slave children.”]

Krieger: You said things changed about a decade or two ago.

Huffman: We started doing this in the early ’90s, and I would say probably toward the later ’90s is when it sort of came out into the open. I don’t think it was directly a result of this, but it coincided with all the Bill Clinton scandals. I think at that point, there was no point in pretending that this was all just civil discourse.

Krieger: So while the labors of opposition researchers have become more public since then, has the process itself stayed pretty much the same?

Huffman: What has changed about the process is really the advent of the internet infiltrating into every sector. We still have to go on the ground, but not for as long, usually, because some of the records are available online. So much is now recorded on social media.

But the overall process is still the same because we’ll talk to anybody. We sit down with some guy that seems a little bit crazy, who’s sitting outside of his trailer with a shotgun across his lap because he thinks somebody is going to kill him for talking to you. Maybe he has something and maybe he doesn’t, but we’ll talk to anybody so long as it leads to documentation — and it’s worthless for our purposes if it doesn’t.

Krieger: What are the kinds of things you do to get this information? Are there dirty tricks involved?

Huffman: Michael and I are both trained as journalists, and we approach all of this the same way we would if we were writing for a publication. So, no, there are no dirty tricks on our end, but there are sometimes things that are directed at us. We get death threats, we get followed, all kinds of things like that happen — which just serves the purpose of telling us that we’re getting warm. We like it when that happens because it tells us that we’re on the trail of something that somebody is afraid of.

People think of opposition researchers like political operatives — they are a sort of tool of the political machine — but in general they’re outsiders. And I can’t tell you how many times we’ve sat down with the candidates after we gave them the report, and he or she has said, “Whose side are you on? I look worse than my opponent in your report.”

We’re like, “Sorry, we’re not going to gloss over anything.” We’re also not going to encourage them to use something that sort of goes beyond the boundaries of what we consider our purpose, which is to document the fitness of a candidate to serve, ultimately. Sometimes that might be found in their divorce case records. But in general, we might look at all that stuff, but using it almost always backfires on someone unless it’s just really, really damning. Of course, now, with the way the whole political discourse is changing, who knows what will backfire or what people will just ignore. Trump has just changed the playing field for everybody.

Krieger: Can you spell out your process a bit more?

Huffman: We’ll start out like everyone else, I guess. Initially we just start doing manic googling and find out everything that we can about them. Then we’ll do an exhaustive Lexis Nexis search and see what’s been published. Basically you just build kind of a work outline and see what are the big issues here.

If you’re an incumbent, we’re going to look at, what is your voting history, what comments have you made that are telling in any way. And we’re going to look at whether you pay your taxes. Sometimes that leads you to interesting places. Sometimes it leads to clear wrongdoing.

Krieger: What are some of the information sources that are publicly available that people might not know to think about?

Huffman: Really anything that is public record, we’re going to look at. If we go to the courthouse, I always stop and just look at the building directory and look at every single office in that building. I think, is there anything that they keep that might be illuminating? The permit office, for example, if the guy’s a big developer or landlord. We just kind of go through the whole list every single time.

You customize it with what you know about the candidate, but you’re going to look at their personal voting history. At the county and city level, you’re going to look at all the criminal records. You’re going to look at whether they got a bunch of speeding tickets, and if so, does it make any difference? Is there something else that makes that notable?

You’re going to look at all the court cases. If there were minutes to meetings that they were a part of, you’re going to look at those — and fall asleep with your head on the table.

Once you’ve done the initial documentary research, you’re going to talk to any sources that you can that might just enlighten you about this candidate. And again, it’s always in the hopes that it will direct you toward documentation. So you might not know that there had been suspicious fires at a number of businesses owned by this candidate. It had never been reported in the news, but somebody who worked in the kitchen of the restaurant will tell you that. Then you can go back and find the records that you otherwise would not have known to look for. So it’s very important to talk to people.

And that’s what I thought about when I was looking at this whole issue of the dossier and whether we would have done that. We don’t normally deal with spies. But we will talk to just about anyone as long as it leads to documentation.

Krieger: What do you make of the dossier, the information in it, how it was obtained?

Huffman: You know, you hear a lot of things, and you might even take note of them, but there’s a lot in the dossier apparently that is undocumented, just as there’s a lot that’s documented. It’s such a complicated story that it’s hard to tell exactly what was going on. A Republican starts the process and then the Democrats pick it up, which is not as unusual as it sounds.

Krieger: You saw the dossier get into the media. So how does that part of the process work?

Huffman: That’s something that I have limited knowledge about because in some cases when we turn in the report, that’s the end of it for us. You know the campaign has no interest in us whatsoever from that point on, and we have no control over what they do. If we think there are red flags, we will note that in the report. But then again, in most cases they don’t use it at all. They just like knowing.

Krieger: When you see information you may have gathered wind up in the media, do you think that there’s any issue with how that information is reported on? Is it standard practice for journalists to say that this was provided by a campaign as opposition research? Are there any sort of standards of transparency?

Huffman: There are no established standards. It really falls on the journalist to be responsible for the source of their information. Whether or not the person who shared that information with the journalist explains how it came about, I think most journalists would know that this is clearly the result of somebody doing oppo. But to the journalist it’s a question of: Does it matter if it’s a partisan document as long as it’s also true? The whole point is to get the truth out there, so yes, it may be questionable who has what agenda. But if it’s public record, you just saved them some time. If I was a reporter and something got leaked to me, I would say, “Yeah this was leaked to me.” But you may have an agreement that you’re not going to say who.

One thing that sort of came out and that kind of gave me pause when thinking about this dossier story is the whole issue of buying information, which is sort of antithetical to us and to journalists. If somebody came to us and said, “We will sell you this,” we would automatically be suspicious and skeptical.

Krieger: Should journalists be more up-front about where they’re getting this information?

Huffman: If there’s any issue about it, about how you came to possess this information and if it came from someone who had been involved in [gathering] it somehow, I think a reporter should definitely be up-front about it and not pretend that this all just magically fell into place. And I think that one of the problems now in journalism is there’s not nearly as much focus on documentation as there once was.

Those are the bigger problems, and I hate to sound like a broken record, but it just all goes back to documentation. If you don’t have it, then you don’t have anything. Unfortunately, that’s our view, and it’s not necessarily the way it works. I mean, look at Trump. He’ll say anything, and he gets the media coverage and he creates this whole weather system that is based on nothing. And so somehow the idea of having documented facts begins to feel a little quaint. But that’s what we traffic in, for better or worse.

Krieger: We were talking about the dossier and how that was compiled. What about Cambridge Analytica reaching out to WikiLeaks for information?

Huffman: We would never deal with a Russian operative because they’re basically an enemy of the state and we’re Americans. And I would be very wary about anything that had been stolen. I would look at [the emails] for sure. I would read them and I would see what I could find that could guide my questions when I interview someone and ultimately lead to some proof of what happened. But the provenance of the documents is important.

Krieger: Putting the WikiLeaks example in the context of the norms of how these things work, does it seem like a really different scale of magnitude, or is it just sort of the next step in getting what information you can?

Huffman: It is kind of the next step. For better or worse, I think because there is such a craving for information, people are going to take it wherever they find it. And, unfortunately, [they may take it] even if it’s not clearly true. There’s no guidebook for doing opposition research and, politics being so volatile, to me the whole [WikiLeaks] thing is a little bit more cautionary than the dossier.

Krieger: Why is the WikiLeaks incident more troubling to you than the dossier?

Huffman: It [the dossier] doesn’t seem like an illegitimate way to find things out. Now, there are aspects of it that I’m curious about and that seem a little strange. But I don’t think it’s as unusual as, say, accepting a big document dump from WikiLeaks that may have been obtained in an illegal way.

Hilary Krieger was FiveThirtyEight’s Washington editor.