“The crackpots get routed to research,” said Tracy Sefl, a veteran Democratic practitioner of the dark arts of oppo.
Much of the job is fielding too-good-to-be-true (or simply unverifiable) charges via furtive phone calls, manila envelopes and untraceable email accounts. Working in the Democratic National Committee’s research department in the 2004 campaign, Ms. Sefl recalled meeting a woman with a story to tell about President George W. Bush.
“She said she worked as a dancer and accused President Bush of doing very specific drug-related activities on her,” Ms. Sefl said. The accuser offered no proof, and the Democrats could do little but share the tale with one another.
Where does it come from?
As any term-paper writer knows, material is drawn from two sources: primary and secondary. The first of these include government documents, such as legal filings and financial disclosures. Remember accounts of the car elevator that Mitt Romney was building inside his oceanside home in California? Those came from renovation plans submitted to the city of San Diego, which were dug up by President Barack Obama’s campaign.
Or how about the $400 John Edwards spent on a haircut? That too was exhumed by the Obama campaign from a campaign finance report.
And that story five days before the 2000 election on George W. Bush driving under the influence in Maine back in 1976? Chris Lehane, a former aide for Al Gore and a native of Maine, does not admit to the paternity of that leak, but he does not deny it, either.
“I told people when asking about the issue only that I was responsible for the popular vote and left the Electoral College for others,” he cheekily said in 2010 after the Bush strategist Karl Rove published a memoir that accused him of being the man behind the story.
And those unflattering stories about the Clinton Foundation in this past campaign? Yes, some of them originated with Republican researchers.
In some cases, the provenance of the leaks remains murky. Mr. Obama, for example, might never have been elected to the Senate in 2004 were it not for damaging revelations about his rivals and their divorces.
Secondary source opposition research largely consists of so-called votes-and-quotes — a political figure’s policy positions and past comments that have appeared in the news media. The material may lack the shock effect of original material, but it can be just as memorable.
Which brings us back to Mr. Romney — and his Irish setter, Seamus. The Romney family, as many readers of a certain columnist at this paper will recall, stowed Seamus on the roof of their car during a family vacation. This anecdote was but one element in a biographical series that The Boston Globe ran on Mr. Romney in 2007, when he first sought the White House. But it found new life when Mr. Romney became the Republican nominee in 2012.
It was the sort of story that, by the standards of an earlier political era, counted as peculiar behavior.
O.K., so how does it work?
The back-and-forth between news source and reporter over opposition research can recall adolescent flirtation: initial awkwardness, then apprehension over whether there is mutual interest — and neither party wants the world to find out the details of the courtship.
A reporter would rather not be identified as being spoon-fed information. Most sources do not want their dirty work to splash back on their candidate or party. So both parties have an interest in keeping a story’s genesis under wraps.
Typically, a campaign or government official approaches the journalist. This often begins with a request for anonymity, or in the parlance of the business, “No fingerprints.” The more sensitive the information, the more likely the pitch is made in person or on the telephone. Most political actors — not, apparently, Donald Trump Jr. — fear creating an email trail, at least before guarantees of anonymity have been offered.
After a reporter agrees not to reveal the identity of the source, the reporter and his or her editors or producers will confer about whether they are interested in pursuing a story about the material on offer.
If the news organization is interested, there is one last issue: how to identify the source. References can be made to “a rival candidate’s campaign” or more obliquely “a source familiar with the dirt” or even the bare-bones “sources say.”
But has anything like this happened before?
There is only one known historical parallel to the Trump campaign’s contacts with the Russians, and it involves Richard M. Nixon. Running for president in 1968, Nixon told H. R. Haldeman, his eventual White House chief of staff, to “monkey wrench” peace talks in Vietnam in order to scuttle any deal that would have handed Hubert Humphrey, the Democratic nominee, a political victory in the closing days of the election.
Nixon, a former senator and vice president, had a relationship with the South Vietnamese government. Earlier in the year, he had met with the country’s ambassador and brought along Anna Chennault, a prominent Chinese-American Republican. As the author John A. Farrell writes in his new book, “Richard Nixon: The Life,” which reports the “monkey wrench” instructions, the call between Nixon and Haldeman took place on Oct. 22, 1968, and Haldeman dutifully jotted down what he was told.
A group of aides to Ronald Reagan did meet in the fall of 1980 with an individual claiming to be an emissary from the Iranian government, but that person’s legitimacy was never determined.
Moscow has, however, tried to meddle in previous American elections. The historian Michael R. Beschloss recounts in “The Crisis Years: Kennedy and Khrushchev, 1960-1963” an account of the relationship between the United States and the Soviet Union during the Kennedy presidency, that the Soviet ambassador in Washington secretly reached out to both John F. Kennedy and Adlai Stevenson, another Democratic presidential hopeful, during the 1960 campaign. The ambassador was rebuffed by both candidates.
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