The ethical dos and don’ts of opposition research
JUDY WOODRUFF: As we just heard, the president defended his older son's meeting with a Russian lawyer last year, saying that it was standard opposition research.
But some have questioned that premise.
To discuss all this, we are joined now by two campaign veterans.
Tim Miller was the former communications director for Jeb Bush's presidential campaign. He is also co-founder of the Republican opposition research group America Rising. And Christina Reynolds, she was the deputy communications director for Hillary Clinton's 2016 presidential campaign, and she's now the senior vice president for Global Strategy Group, a Democratic research firm.
And we welcome both of you to the NewsHour.
Christina, I'm going to start with you.
Tell our audience, what is opposition research?
CHRISTINA REYNOLDS, Former Hillary Clinton Campaign Official: Well, when I started, we used to call it quotes, votes and anecdotes.
It is gathering public information to tell a story about your opponent. So, we look at public sources. We look at everything from votes to tax records to personal stories that you can find out about someone.
JUDY WOODRUFF: Tim Miller, what would you add to that?
TIM MILLER, Former Jeb Bush Campaign Offcial: I think that's right. I call it full information awareness.
You want to know everything you can about your opponent, everything they have ever said, any way they have ever made money, any way they have ever spent money, and so that you can use it to your advantage in the campaign and so voters know their entire record.
JUDY WOODRUFF: And, Christina Reynolds, is it anything goes? Anything about their medical records, their personal life?
CHRISTINA REYNOLDS: No.
I mean, first and foremost, you have to — we used to have a rule that said, if you can cite it, you can write it. You need a publicly available source for something to be credible in the news, for something to be credible in ads.
And, second of all, if you go into things like medical records and things like that, then you start getting into worrying about blowback for your own candidate. So, it's not anything goes. You have to be careful.
JUDY WOODRUFF: What do you mean blowback?
CHRISTINA REYNOLDS: I mean, at some point, there's a risk that the actual gathering of the information may be considered worse then the public — than the information that's found, if it's considered dirty tricks, so to speak.
JUDY WOODRUFF: Tim Miller, are there lines drawn around what's considered acceptable opposition research or not?
TIM MILLER: Of course there are.
We started an opposition research firm America Rising that has been very successful. And — but what try to do is ensure that we stay inside these lines, both legal lines and ethical — and ethical boundaries. And I think both of those are in play here with regards to the president's son's meeting.
It's like Christina said. You saw this with the Ted Cruz campaign in Iowa, that they had blowback when they were spreading information that Ben Carson was going to drop out of the race, when that wasn't true.
You have to be careful that your opposition research is correct, first and foremost, but also within legal and ethical bounds.
JUDY WOODRUFF: And that's what I want to pursue with both of you.
What is inside and what is outside the bounds of what you can do? And, of course, we're asking you all this because of what happened with regard to Donald Trump Jr., the meeting he took with a Russian — representative of the Russian government.
CHRISTINA REYNOLDS: Sure.
Well, I can tell you, in my experience in research, what he did is not normal. I think that what's inside the bounds is things that are publicly available. You do a lot of Freedom of Information Act records requests. You certainly talk to people, but you do so with people that you know and trust are giving you solid information and information that you can then go and prove.
And you certainly don't do something with a hostile government, you know, being on your side. You know, the best example of this is when Al Gore's campaign got a debate book FedExed to them, a George Bush debate book. The first thing they did was call the FBI, because you wonder, are you being set up? You wonder, is this something that's valid, that's real?
That's something that you don't take every meeting. People call with tips. You make sure that you trust the veracity of the information and the source.
JUDY WOODRUFF: Tim Miller, had you ever, before this instance, heard of a time when someone was offered information by a foreign hostile government?
TIM MILLER: Well, I will tell you, almost to the question, I — like President Trump, have been called by anonymous people, friends of friends with information about him, frankly, and about Hillary Clinton when I was working for Jeb Bush.
And you have to make a decision about whether this is a credible person. You have to talk to lawyers to make sure, if you have the conversation, it's within legal bounds.
Now, those conversations, while maybe some would consider to be a little bit sketchy, pale in comparison to the idea of getting a call from somebody who explicitly says they're here from the Russian government.
This is not just a foreign government, Judy. It wasn't Switzerland who had called Donald Trump Jr.
JUDY WOODRUFF: Right.
TIM MILLER: It was a country that is out there to undermine our interests on the world stage. It's so far beyond the pale, that it's kind of almost silly to compare it to some of these other gray area opposition research efforts, because there is nothing gray about it.
JUDY WOODRUFF: Christina, were you ever aware of being offered or hear of anybody in a campaign being offered something from a foreign hostile…
CHRISTINA REYNOLDS: From a foreign government?
JUDY WOODRUFF: Right.
CHRISTINA REYNOLDS: That's an easy answer: No.
JUDY WOODRUFF: And so, when a question arises about what you're — whether you're being offered or what someone's trying to tell you, if there is any question about it, what do you do?
CHRISTINA REYNOLDS: I think, as Tim mentioned, sometimes, you talk to lawyers. You think about, will I be able to give this to a reporter and know that it's true? Would I have my candidate say it out loud and feel confident in that?
You think through those things, and I think you set a really high bar. If we learned anything from the Donald Trump's election, from the past campaign and Trump's election, it's that no one story can kill a campaign, but you don't want to be the one that is — you know, that is seen as playing dirty tricks.
JUDY WOODRUFF: Are people — I know every campaign is different, Tim Miller, in the way it's organized, the hierarchy and so forth.
But are there rules that are shared, that are known by people in modern American politics about what's OK and what isn't? You just count on the lawyers you hire? And I know every campaign has lawyers to tell you that, or how does that work?
TIM MILLER: Yes, look, I think that there are norms within opposition research.
We also run a candidate tracking organization. It's the guys that — and gals that follow around candidates with a video camera to get whatever they say on the record.
And there are rules. We work with a Democratic opposition research firm, you know, and we would have an off-the-record conversation to kind of set boundaries, you know, that we weren't going to go videotape their family dinner, right? You're not going to go dumpster-diving in there in the trash can outside their house.
Like I said, there are going to be areas where there are some — where there are gray areas. Opposition research is not all just fun and games. It's serious business, especially running for high office.
But there are legal lines and then there are also just decency boundaries, you know, like the example I mentioned about the family.
JUDY WOODRUFF: Right, but even if — Christina, even if the campaign says, we're not going to do this, there are other tabloids and others out there who may be engaging in this kind of research.
CHRISTINA REYNOLDS: Sure.
And I think one thing — Tim will probably back me up on this — one thing that is true of all researchers is, we all see black helicopters a little bit. We are all just a little bit paranoid. And you worry about a setup. You worry that just the giving of that information may be more interesting news than the information itself.
And so you use your best judgment, as Tim mentioned. You know, you use your lawyers and you use your best judgment, and you make sure that you don't do anything that's going to damage the campaign.
JUDY WOODRUFF: Experience counts.
TIM MILLER: You go back to that '08 campaign with Hillary Clinton and Obama, Hillary Clinton's oppo research on Obama, I think — Christina would know better — backfired more than it helped, because people didn't want there to be, within a family, intraparty squabbles that were that personal.
And so you have to be careful about that. There are electoral implications to consider, in addition to the legal and ethical ones.
JUDY WOODRUFF: Well, it is — it's a subject that doesn't get a lot of attention, but, right now, everybody is asking questions.
Tim Miller, Christina Reynolds, we thank you both.
CHRISTINA REYNOLDS: Thank you.
TIM MILLER: Thanks, Judy.