It started as a meeting about adoption, with a Russian lawyer, then about sanctions, then about emails, then with a “former” Russian spy. At some point a C-list British promoter got thrown into the mix, alongside Jared Kushner, Paul Manafort, and most recently a real estate executive fingered in a GAO report for helping Russians launder more than $1.4 billion.
The meeting, the president, his son, and their defenders assure us, wasn’t collusion but rather “opposition research.”
Over the last week, dozens of articles have been written arguing about whether the meeting was appropriate in the context of opposition research. And to be more precise, many, many articles have been written by researchers about how they wouldn’t have taken the meeting. As best I can tell, so far no actual campaign researchers have come forward saying they would have taken it, or attempted to justify it.
Let’s start with the basic problem: research is hardly the no-holds-barred wasteland that President Trump and his eldest son seem to imagine it to be. And certainly, oppo has never been a get-out-of-jail-free card for bad behavior. Researchers are relatively anonymous staff, and they act at the behest of their candidate and campaign.
The candidate is presumed to be responsible for their work and their actions. If Don Jr. is just – as the president has suggested – a “wonderful young man” doing a bit of “opposition research,” the bill for it all still stops with the president. And that leaves him responsible for what now appears to be a blatant effort to collude with Russian representatives with government and intelligence ties.
On the rare occasions where things go too far in the world of research, there are typically legal consequences. In 2006, a researcher at the DSCC who illegally accessed Maryland Senate candidate Michael Steele’s credit report pled guilty to a misdemeanor. In 2010, Republican provocateur James O’Keefe pled guilty to a misdemeanor charge of entering a federal building under false pretenses in a case that stemmed from an alleged attempt to tamper with Sen. Mary Landrieu's (D) office phone system. In 2003, the then-executive director of the Virginia GOP was sentenced to three years of probation and fined $5,000 for illegally intercepting a Democratic Party conference call.
Whether you see the younger Trump's meeting as massively ethically problematic (seeking stolen materials) or just as staggeringly poor decision making (an email exchange about collaborating with agents of a hostile foreign power), such a meeting doesn’t come close to today’s reality of opposition research.
More broadly, what’s really notable about opposition research done well is that it relies on no artifice or skull-drudgery, but rather leverages publicly available records and data to bring greater transparency, and often meaningful accountability, to public debates.
By and large, today’s opposition researchers and opposition research processes are focused on collecting open-source intelligence from public data sources, and distilling it into narrative. This generally starts with combing through the voting records and news archives around candidates, and then diving deeper, to build out a fulsome profile.
Increasingly, with more and more open public data coming online every day, it means scouring this growing layer of public data for the additional intelligence it can provide. And while campaigns occasionally get tips that the research team tries to track down public records evidence for (again, generally drawn from the growing corpus of available public data), the vast majority of these wind up being baseless or noise.
That growing body of open public data is where both the current growth and the future of research lies. As more and more public data has comes online, it means more opportunities – and more work. When Data.gov – the federal government’s open data portal – launched in 2009, it housed 47 data sets. Today, it houses nearly 200,0000. And as more records come online at all levels of government.
To give one example, in Miami-Dade County, government data as granular as who has ordered bulk waste pick-ups is publicly available. These public databases have dramatically increasing the depth and potential for research, and opening up new opportunities to improve transparency and accountability.
Opposition research today isn’t about finding rumors, tips, gossip or in this case foreign spies and their hangers-on interested in meddling in our elections. Instead, researchers are leveraging this world of open public data and using that intelligence to provide insights.
Unlike foreign subterfuge, that’s really a good thing for our democracy. So much of the data that was previously siloed inside of government agencies is now available and often machine readable. That’s letting savvy research operations dig deep into these newly available resources and sort out what matters. And those public records, being real and directly verifiable, will only get more valuable we endure future cycles of fake news, and public skepticism of claims grows.
Mike Phillips is the founder of Vigilant, a public records research and monitoring platform. Prior to that he spent 10 years as a campaign researcher, consultant, and adviser.
Correction: An earlier version of this piece stated incorrectly that James O’Keefe and three associates pled guilty to trespassing in an attempt to tap Sen. Mary Landrieu’s office phones.