What Donald Trump Jr. Didn’t Do
“Opposition research” (as a concept) is back in the news. Was Donald Trump, Jr. colluding with a foreign government? Or was he simply flushing out legitimate “oppo” that could be relevant to his father’s presidential campaign?
While Donald Jr. clearly betrays his own thinking in the leaked emails, it’s another teachable moment brought to us by the Trumps. Therefore, here are five basic lessons I learned from my time spent researching and directing the flow of information up hierarchies in both campaigns and corporations:
1) Be Skeptical Not Emotional. Political campaigns by their very nature inspire passions. Corporate campaigns and massive litigations, usually have a boatload of money riding on the outcome. As a result, all are emotionally charged. The folks who contact you with information are motivated by personal agendas, greed, or grudges. Your job is to distill the information, verify it, and weigh it against the campaign’s overall message and plan. Presumably, you know the polling, or the market data, and have a sense of what people care about. The emotional crank who is calling you doesn’t. They don’t know who you are targeting, or your trade secrets. You can’t let emotions for your candidate, your company, or principal get in the way of your sound professional judgment. Healthy skepticism, will prevent you from getting hoodwinked or embarrassed, and keep you from wasting time on something irrelevant. It’s rare that any of those reaching out to you have something genuine to offer, and even rarer still that you will be privy to information that requires you to contact law enforcement or civil authorities (like the SEC, FTC, FEC). So best to listen politely, thank whoever, and get back to work.
2) Watch The Clock. Chasing down ridiculous fact patterns can take an inordinate amount of time. Just because someone with nothing better to do has spent their entire life putting something together, doesn’t mean you should devote all YOUR time to it. In my first real campaign experience, I once drew the “short straw” to dispense with an elderly person who claimed to have THE smoking gun against our opposition. (In reality, he simply made a nice binder of news articles he copied from his local library). He called the campaign incessantly, and one day he showed up. I was deputized (and given a high-ranking title just to sit down with the guy) with instructions to make him feel like we were seriously reviewing his material, and to get rid of him. My mistake was that it took me 30 minutes to get rid of the guy and the campaign manager needed me after 15 minutes. And I was chewed out. Loudly. Time is important on any campaign, or on any weekday for that matter, so when dealing with “crazy,” don’t lose sight of how much time you are wasting.
3) Keep Information AWAY From Principals. The candidate, CEO, celebrity, or key investor all have many things on their minds. They are human beings. Telling them something that is incomplete, unverified or even untrue, can cause them to focus their energies and attention on something that is not germane to what they need to do. Show them the final product once its produced, reported on, or in a clear one-pager of bullet points. Once in a campaign I had a candidate excitedly come over to find out what attacks we were working on. Rather than brag about our work, I expelled the candidate from the room, and simply said, “we got this.” The research wasn’t done, the information wasn’t ready, and the candidate needed to focus on other things that day (h/t to the campaign manager who always made sure the right hand knew what the left hand was doing). Another time, an opposing candidate wouldn’t stop discussing — “off-the-record” — a potential legal matter involving another candidate. But there was no record, no one to discuss it, and it was only a rumor. In the end, it was just an unseemly waste of time that this candidate wasted so much precious energy on, and of course he lost (as did the “accused”). Until you have it cold, keep the candidate or principal (and key family members) away from the information.
4) Trust Your Instincts. You have a plan, you have direction, and you know the polling and market data. That usually forms the basis of how you approach each and every day. Stick to it. The opposition, or competition, are always throwing things at you to knock you off your game. That’s why there are rapid response teams and even more planning and research. The last thing you need is someone “trying to help you” who further disrupts your day and wastes your precious time. More often than not, because of the time you have already spent on a matter, you will know with limited effort if something is real and worth pursuing. If someone shows up at your door pretending to be Santa Claus or the Tooth Fairy, treat them accordingly (i.e. leave them a cookie, a campaign sticker or button, or whatever) and move on.
5) Never Stop Vetting. Checking the peddlers of the information is as important as following up on the information itself. Who is calling? What is their background? What are they telling you about their past? What can you find out on your own about them? All this is relevant to understanding what the information is, and the motivations behind it. Don’t take the meeting before you know who are meeting with. This applies not just for the principals, but all the way down to the interns and volunteers. If you don’t have a handle on “who,” the “what” won’t matter.
The clear lessons from all of this is to do the work and not jump to conclusions (even if you “love” the potential outcome). Donald Jr. is in a heap of trouble of his own making. Watergate took two-plus years of reporting and fact-finding, Iran-Contra four years and Whitewater seven years. Lawfirms devote thousands of man hours to diligence before a merger. Nothing is clear right away, if ever. And if it seems too good to be true, it’s most likely FAKE.
Menashe Shapiro is the founder of the Shapiro Consulting Group. Previously, he served as a Managing Director for Research at Tusk Strategies and Tusk Ventures where he led the media and telecommunications practice.