Scrutiny mounts for Trump digital operation

Scrutiny mounts for Trump digital operation
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Scrutiny on the digital side of President Trump’s 2016 campaign is mounting after revelations that the head of Cambridge Analytica, a data mining and analysis firm that worked for the campaign, contacted WikiLeaks’ Julian Assange about Democratic nominee Hillary ClintonHillary Diane Rodham ClintonGrassley blasts Democrats over unwillingness to probe Clinton GOP lawmakers cite new allegations of political bias in FBI Top intel Dem: Trump Jr. refused to answer questions about Trump Tower discussions with father MORE’s emails.

The Daily Beast reported Wednesday that Alexander Nix, Cambridge Analytica’s CEO, told a third party that he reached out to the WikiLeaks founder last year about the emails that Clinton deleted from the server she used while secretary of State. 

The Trump campaign paid Cambridge Analytica millions during the 2016 presidential race. In the aftermath of the Assange revelations, aides have raced to distance the campaign from the firm.

The company, which is partially owned by the family of billionaire Trump supporter Robert Mercer, mines online data in order to target potential voters with personalized political messaging. It reportedly also worked on the United Kingdom's referendum over leaving the European Union. 

The exchange between Nix and Assange, which occurred before Election Day, is likely to fuel the congressional and special counsel investigations into Russian election interference. 

Last year, WikiLeaks released troves of hacked emails from the Democratic National Committee and Clinton campaign chairman John Podesta. WikiLeaks obtained the emails from Russian-backed hackers, according to a U.S. intelligence assessment.

The House Intelligence Committee has already requested information from Cambridge Analytica. 

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The Trump campaign issued a statement late Wednesday afternoon crediting the Republican National Committee and its data team as its “main source for data analytics” in 2016, an apparent attempt to distance the campaign from Cambridge Analytica. 

“We as a campaign made the choice to rely on the voter data of the Republican National Committee to help elect President Donald J. Trump,” Michael Glassner, executive director of Donald TrumpDonald John TrumpHouse Democrat slams Donald Trump Jr. for ‘serious case of amnesia’ after testimony Skier Lindsey Vonn: I don’t want to represent Trump at Olympics Poll: 4 in 10 Republicans think senior Trump advisers had improper dealings with Russia MORE for President, said. “Any claims that voter data from any other source played a key role in the victory are false.” 

But campaign filings show that the campaign paid Cambridge Analytica $5.9 million for data management services between 2015 and 2016.

A former GOP source said that Cambridge Analytica primarily fit into the digital operations of the campaign and used data produced by the RNC for marketing on social media and other platforms. 

“[The RNC] provided the data to Cambridge, and they used that for marketing,” the source said, adding that the company had roughly 12 to 15 employees on the ground in San Antonio, where Trump digital director Brad Parscale’s company is located. 

Parscale met with members of the House Intelligence Committee behind closed doors on Tuesday as part of its Russia probe.

Another source familiar with the campaign’s data operations recall Cambridge Analytica playing little role, compared to the RNC.

“Cambridge Analytica didn’t really fit in with it much at all,” a source close to Trump’s data team said. “There was a push to use Cambridge from some different parts of the campaign, but when it came down to it, the tools that Cambridge Analytica created … didn’t have any proof that they worked.”

In a statement earlier this month responding to the House investigation request, a Cambridge Analytica spokesman emphasized the firm’s “prominent role” in Trump’s successful campaign.

Mercer has invested $5 million in Cambridge Analytica, according to The New Yorker. He isn’t the only Trump ally with connections to the firm — former White House chief strategist Stephen Bannon, who now runs Breitbart News, previously served on Cambridge Analytica’s board. 

Michael Flynn, who briefly served as national security adviser before resigning in February after he was found to have lied about his interactions with former Russian Ambassador Sergey Kislyak, recently amended his public financial filing to disclose a brief advisory role with SCL Group, Cambridge Analytica’s parent company.

A WikiLeaks spokesman confirmed to The Hill that “a request for information from Cambridge Analytica was rejected” last year, but did not confirm the content of the firm’s offer. A spokesman for Cambridge Analytica did not return a request for comment.

Trump’s critics have already seized on the latest revelations. Speaking on CNN, Sen. Richard Blumenthal (D-Conn.) said that the meeting fits a broader pattern of the Trump campaign seeking damaging information on Clinton, citing the June 2016 Trump Tower meeting during which Donald Trump Jr. and others met with a Russian lawyer. 

“Cambridge Analytica may not have been a direct part of the Trump campaign, but it certainly was hired by it, and there were also other Trump associates who were reaching out as well,” Blumenthal, a member of the Senate Intelligence Committee, said Wednesday. 

“It should be a topic that is of interest to our committee, because the Russian investigation and obstruction of justice, which is at the core of our investigation, should include all available relevant information,” the senator added.

The top Democrats on the House Judiciary and Oversight committees have sent letters to Nix, Parscale and others demanding information on whether they exchanged information with a foreign actor or government during the campaign. 

In announcing he would meet with House investigators back in July, Parscale said that he had no knowledge of “any Russian involvement in the digital and data operations” of the Trump campaign.

“The only collaboration I am aware of in the Trump digital campaign was with staff provided to the campaign by Facebook, Google and Twitter,” he said. “Those experts in digital marketing worked side-by-side with our teams from Giles-Parscale, the Republican National Committee, and Cambridge Analytica to run a professional and winning campaign.” 

Attempts to reach Parscale following his interview on Tuesday were unsuccessful.

Meanwhile, the committees are also scrutinizing how Russia leveraged social media platforms like Twitter and Facebook to influence the election. Representatives from technology companies are slated to testify publicly before the Senate Intelligence Committee on Wednesday.