Don­ald Trump Jr. has no idea what op­po­si­tion re­searchers ac­tu­ally do

The Washington Post Sunday - - OUTLOOK - Twit­ter: @tra­cy­sefl Tracy Sefl is a Demo­cratic com­mu­ni­ca­tions con­sul­tant.

‘For me, this was op­po­si­tion re­search,” Don­ald Trump Jr. told Sean Han­nity on Tues­day night on Fox News. “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, the other woman.) A gen­er­ous ob­server might give Trump Jr., a po­lit­i­cal ten­der­foot, 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 con­sider it any kind of art.) When done well, it’s a thought­ful, di­rected process of com­pil­ing known facts and fig­ures about an op­po­nent’s rel­e­vant life and ca­reer el­e­ments 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?” 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, the 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 quickly learned that the day-to-day re­al­ity of op­po­si­tion re­search isn’t al­ways 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 com­posed with let­ters cut from a magazine, but some came close.) How­ever strange the source, ev­ery­thing is read, ev­ery voice mail lis­tened to. Oc­ca­sion­ally, a staffer might fall prey to a blocked num­ber and be trapped hear­ing a long, fan­tas­ti­cal story, of­fer­ing only be­nign “mm-hmm”s while col­leagues of­fer sym­pa­thetic looks.

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 be­lieved 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 past week of the meet­ing Trump Jr. had with Rus­sian lawyer Natalia Ve­sel­nit­skaya in June 2016 — 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 his 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 lawyer 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 — two other pres­i­den­tial cam­paigns, as well as two gu­ber­na­to­rial races — or any of the best ones I’ve worked against. You don’t have to have years of po­lit­i­cal ex­pe­ri­ence to re­ject such a meet­ing — just com­mon sense.

(And 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 is ap­pro­pri­ate 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.

In one way, Trump Jr. is right — he can’t help what some­one sends 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.

Demo­cratic op­er­a­tive

Tracy Sefl says ‘oppo’ comes from comb­ing pub­lic records, not work­ing with spies

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