Democrats' opposition research got exposed — this time, not by the Russians

Democrats' opposition research got exposed — this time, not by the Russians
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When the Russians hacked the Democratic National Committee (DNC) in summer 2016, one of the crown jewels obtained by Vladimir Putin’s team was the party’s opposition research files on then-GOP candidate Donald Trump.

It was quite a blow to the DNC, because political parties usually guard their research zealously, hoping to use it with the news media and political commercials to help ding their political rivals without leaving fingerprints.

But the Democratic Party committee that helps elects candidates to U.S. House seats has exposed scores of its own opposition research files on GOP candidates, past and present, on the internet. They just aren’t easy to find.

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Those Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee (DCCC) files aren’t on web addresses tied to its official domain, https://dccc.org/. Instead, the research files appear under such arcane URLs as http://2vmhfw1isbe32j3tgn3epw3x-wpengine.netdna-ssl.com/. To find these jewels, someone would have to know that cryptic address, or be willing to scroll through multiple screens of a Google search before it showed up.

Why is this the case?

The DCCC insists it isn’t another hack, nor was it an accidental publishing of secret files — that it didn’t make a security mistake. Instead, a senior DCCC official told me it was “an intentional publishing of materials that aren’t being publicized right now.” 

In other words, the DCCC posted some of its most valuable opposition research in a way that isn’t exactly accessible unless you know where to look.

“Sometimes we publish research and polling so it can be helpful,” the official explained.

To Democratic candidates? I asked.

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“Yes,” but then the official immediately clarified: “We take our obligation to avoid improper coordination very seriously.” 

All this might sound like political gobbledygook to the average reader.

But actually it provides a window into how political parties craftily perform an end run around federal campaign laws that limit how much parties can contribute to support candidates directly. Those laws also outlaw coordination between candidates and their supporters.

The recently finished report by former special counsel Robert MuellerRobert (Bob) Swan MuellerTrump says he'll release financial records before election, knocks Dems' efforts House impeachment hearings: The witch hunt continues Speier says impeachment inquiry shows 'very strong case of bribery' by Trump MORE, who found no 2016 election collusion between the Trump campaign and Russia, provides insight into how opposition research files might run afoul of illegal coordination or contribution limits.

Mueller’s analysis of election statutes concluded there is a legal basis to believe that “candidate-related opposition research given to a campaign for the purpose of influencing an election could constitute a contribution” subject to federal donation limits and bans on coordination.

“A campaign can be assisted not only by the provision of funds, but also by the provision of derogatory information about an opponent,” Mueller wrote. 

In other words, the DCCC — or any other party’s committees, for that matter — could run afoul of federal campaign limits and coordination bans if it privately gave its expensive opposition research directly to candidates.

So the DCCC and some of its GOP counterparts have invented a workaround.

They publish opposition research reports they think can help their candidates on obscure web addresses, where their candidates can download them and most voters and Republican rivals are unlikely to see them. 

Party lawyers have concluded the candidates can make use of the research without claiming they were “contributions” or “coordinated expenditures” under federal election law because they were posted on a technically public — albeit little-noticed — website visible in a Google search, according to sources. 

Republicans and Democrats alike do it, my sources added.

During the last election, the DCCC posted its Republican attack documents for a while at https://www.dccc.org/races, a place where Democratic candidates knew to look but that wasn’t well-publicized to the public. After the election, the opposition files dropped off the link.

But the raw documents remained visible in a Google search, thanks to that obscure server address.  

The currently posted tranche of DCCC documents demonstrates the art of opposition research, where any action can be portrayed in a negative light — even when it is perfectly legal.

Take, for example, this headline in the opposition file on House Minority Whip Steve ScaliseStephen (Steve) Joseph ScaliseGOP calls for minority hearing on impeachment, threatens procedural measures Lighthizer starts GOP charm offensive on Trump trade deal Pelosi announces support for new Trump NAFTA deal MORE (R-La.): “Scalise benefitted from the perks of Congress.” To back it up, the memo says Scalise collected more than $1.8 million in taxpayer money while in Congress.

That turns out to be the aggregate amount of salary he legally collected as a congressman, which begs the question: If it is somehow nefarious for Scalise to take his congressional salary, what about all the Democrats in Congress who also collect paychecks? 

Common messaging is another obvious tactic. Several GOP leaders in Congress — including Scalise, House Freedom Caucus Chairman Mark MeadowsMark Randall MeadowsTop Zelensky aide refutes Sondland testimony Watchdog report finds FBI not motivated by political bias in Trump probe The Hill's Morning Report - Sponsored by AdvaMed - A crucial week on impeachment MORE (R-N.C.) and House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthyKevin Owen McCarthyCollege Republicans launch campaign calling for GOP to take action on climate change Pelosi's whiplash moment brings praise and criticism GOP calls for minority hearing on impeachment, threatens procedural measures MORE (R-Calif.) — were branded with the same title on their opposition research files: “Swamp Creature.”

Clearly, someone on the DCCC opposition research team had the idea of turning President Trump’s famous “Drain the Swamp” rallying cry around on GOP lawmakers in 2018.

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Rep. Devin NunesDevin Gerald NunesHillicon Valley: Apple, Facebook defend encryption during Senate grilling | Tech legal shield makes it into trade deal | Impeachment controversy over phone records heats up | TikTok chief cancels Capitol Hill meetings The Hill's Morning Report - Sponsored by AdvaMed - Democrats to release articles of impeachment today Controversy on phone records intensifies amid impeachment MORE (R-Calif.), a favorite target of Democrats during his tenure as House Intelligence Committee chairman, had an opposition file that didn’t mention anything about the controversies of the Russia collusion investigation he oversaw.

Instead, his file had revelations such as “Nunes has voted with the Republican Party 96 percent of the time” and that he had taken nearly $400,000 in taxpayer-funded trips over two decades. The first is hardly surprising, since he rose quickly into House GOP leaders’ trust, enough to earn the Intelligence Committee perch. Republicans tend to vote with Republicans.

The second revelation isn’t surprising, either, since members of both parties on the Intelligence Committee travel frequently at taxpayer expense to conduct on-the-ground fact-finding about complicated issues they oversee.

In fact, the committee spends upward of $600,000 a quarter on official trips, according to its travel records. Nunes’s Democratic successor, current Chairman Adam SchiffAdam Bennett SchiffRepublicans consider skipping witnesses in Trump impeachment trial Trump rails against FBI, impeachment during Pennsylvania rally Democrats reach cusp of impeachment MORE of California, spent about $20,000 on official trips to Israel, Europe and Asia in the first quarter of 2018 alone.

John Solomon is an award-winning investigative journalist whose work over the years has exposed U.S. and FBI intelligence failures before the Sept. 11 attacks, federal scientists’ misuse of foster children and veterans in drug experiments, and numerous cases of political corruption. He serves as an investigative columnist and executive vice president for video at The Hill. Follow him on Twitter @jsolomonReports.