A Former Obama Operative Built a New Anti-Republican Attack Machine
(Bloomberg Businessweek) -- One evening in September, Tanya, a consultant at a big New York firm, was on her laptop scrutinizing public records and reading posts on VKontakte, the Russian social network, involving Representative Dana Rohrabacher, the Republican congressman from California. She was looking for dirt. On the other side of the country, Genevieve, a science teacher in San Diego, was doing the same. So was Vadim, an insurance representative in Phoenix. And they weren’t alone.
Tanya, Genevieve, and Vadim have never met and probably never will. But they have two things in common: They’re members of the so-called Resistance, working to oust Republicans. And they’re being directed by a former J.P. Morgan banker named John Burton, who’s become a field general of sorts in the liberal opposition—and soon, he hopes, the cause of consternation and, ultimately, unemployment for dozens of Republican lawmakers in races from Maine to California.
Before he was a banker, Burton, 38, was a practitioner of the dark art of opposition research, or “oppo”—digging up and surreptitiously deploying damaging information about politicians. As it did for so many people, Donald Trump’s election turned Burton’s life upside down. He quit his job, joined a Resistance group, and devoted himself to returning his country to the path he’d believed it was on when he worked for Barack Obama’s campaign a decade ago.
Some Resisters march or knock on doors; others raise money or run for office. Burton felt his gifts lay elsewhere: namely, in tearing down political opponents. Over the past year, backed by mysterious donors, he’s organized what may be the most audacious grass-roots project in the age of Trump. Burton has amassed an army of 16,000 amateur sleuths who, with professional guidance, have spent months ferreting out damaging material on scores of vulnerable Republicans in Congress and state legislatures. Now he’s ready to unleash it just in time for the midterms. As he told me, “We’re going to do with real information and real Americans what the Russians tried to do with fake information and fake Americans.”
Oppo works best when its target is unaware, so Burton’s project, dubbed Citizen Strong, has operated by stealth, waiting until just now to publicly declare its existence as a 501(c)4 “dark money” group with three affiliated political action committees. Even this step doesn’t reveal much. Dark money donors can give unlimited sums anonymously, and Burton won’t identify his benefactors or even the three operatives he’s hired to help run the group.
But you needn’t know the source of his funding to see the potential of his army to upend close races. Rohrabacher presents a ripe target. The Orange County congressman has been so friendly to Moscow, in 2012 the FBI warned that Russian spies were trying to recruit him. Rohrabacher is also one of the least wealthy members of Congress, but he’s developed a pair of odd and remunerative sidelines: He invested in an obscure biotech company that shot up 100-fold in value; and he’s sold screenplays with names like The French Doctoress for tens of thousands of dollars, including one to a man later sent to prison for fraud. (None has been made into a movie.) In a statement, a Rohrabacher campaign spokesman says, “It’s October and Democratic super PACs are flush with cash. Every dirt digger on the left has a fistful of contracts and a bag of tricks and treats they are shopping to reporters. Most of it is old news, and the questions have been asked and answered long ago.”
Examining these windfalls for potential fraud or conflict of interest would usually require a professional investigator such as Christopher Steele, the ex-MI6 agent who produced the infamous dossier on Trump. Most campaigns can’t afford that. But the main requirements for being a successful oppo researcher—time, patience, and dogged determination—were qualities Burton saw in abundance among his Resistance compatriots. Many were skilled professionals whose expertise he thought he could weaponize for politics if they were willing to spend their free time doing things like digging through social media accounts and newspaper clippings or hunting down property records and arrest filings at the local courthouse. When he put out a call for help on Rohrabacher, he soon had at his disposal a forensic accountant, a team of corporate lawyers, and a fluent Russian speaker—Tanya, the New York consultant. “As far as I’m concerned, it’s all hands on deck,” she says. “If someone has a special ability, they should be using it to help take back the House.” (She and other volunteers I spoke to for this story asked that their full names not be used to protect their identities and prevent problems at work.)
With his Citizen Strong partners, all veteran researchers, Burton has spent the year choosing his targets. In February he decided to focus on districts that leaned slightly right—ones like Rohrabacher’s that haven’t been competitive but would be if a Democratic wave emerged. That bet looks prescient. A recent New York Times poll showed Rohrabacher, a 15-term incumbent, tied with his Democratic challenger. Control of Congress will hinge on whether Rohrabacher and other endangered Republicans can withstand a midterm wave. Citizen Strong’s October surprises will make survival that much harder.
Burton has a trove of anti-Republican material. The art of oppo lies in culling and distributing that kind of information to tell a particular story—a negative story—that will tarnish the incumbent and weaken his or her support. Sometimes researchers will quietly slip it to reporters, hoping it will yield a story and gain the imprimatur of a nonpartisan news outlet. Other times, oppo can be the basis of an ad campaign or used to build a website voters and the media can scrutinize—a bit like WikiLeaks. (Burton says none of his material is obtained through hacking or other illegal means.) With the midterms looming, he’s begun disseminating his “citizen oppo” in three Senate races, 22 House races, and 133 state legislative races across 13 states. He’s hoping these last-minute attacks will help push many of these races into the Democratic column, flipping control of the House—and possibly even the Senate—as well as state legislatures that will play a critical role in redrawing congressional lines in 2020, a process that will shape national politics for the next decade.
While the story of the Resistance tends to focus on the positive—the revival of civic activism—Burton has the hard-bitten perspective of someone who’s fought in the campaign trenches and knows that placards and pussy hats aren’t enough to beat Republicans. “John is willing to go where we need to go,” says his friend Laura Moser, a former Democratic congressional candidate. “He knows we’ve got to play dirty to win.”
Burton spent election night 2016 at a dive bar in New York with old friends from Democratic politics, revisiting a life he’d long since left behind. After growing up in Miami and earning a scholarship to Harvard, he’d moved to Washington to work on economic policy at a progressive think tank. As the 2008 election approached, his boss encouraged him to join the Obama campaign, where his quick mind and grasp of policy would be an asset. She had a role in mind for him. “She told me, ‘You’d be great at oppo,’ ” Burton recalls. “I said, ‘What’s that?’ ”
As a member of Obama’s oppo team, Burton was pitted against Hillary Clinton and then John McCain, which forced him to master arcane issues of local concern, from hog lots to the Colorado River Compact. It also taught him the art of sowing discord to weaken an opponent. According to Burton, the campaign purposely leaked stories critical of certain McCain staffers, knowing the staffers would likely blame internal rivals for the attacks. His most memorable assignment was combing property records to determine how many homes McCain owned. When the question arose in an interview, McCain couldn’t come up with the correct answer—eight—and looked like an out-of-touch plutocrat rather than a maverick war hero.
After the election, Burton joined Obama’s Treasury Department and spent a stressful year and a half fighting the financial crisis. “That’s when I lost my hair,” he says. In 2010 he left politics, got a degree at the Stanford Graduate School of Business, and landed an investment banking job at JPMorgan Chase & Co. in San Francisco, working with clients such as Google and Twitter Inc. So certain was he that his future lay in finance that he passed up working on Obama’s reelection and stayed in California. His trip to New York in November 2016 was meant to be part reunion, part celebration of Clinton’s victory.
By 9 p.m. it was clear there would be nothing to celebrate. “Being from Miami, I could tell right away that the numbers from Dade County were off,” Burton remembers. The next morning, he woke up in a daze. “I stumble into the J.P. Morgan office in New York, and it’s just a weird vibe,” he says. “Some people are happy, but most are scared. I was known as an Obama guy, so it was an awkward period.”
Burton was racked with guilt that he hadn’t done his part to stop Trump. This was somewhat alleviated when Moser recruited him for an idea she’d had about creating a productive outlet for the hundreds of aggrieved friends and acquaintances who wanted to act but didn’t know how. By mid-December, Moser had started a group called Daily Action to give Resistance members a single, focused task, delivered via text each morning—calling a key senator to object to a nominee, say, or marshaling supporters at airports to protest Trump’s travel ban. She leaned on Burton to help figure out what those tasks should be. “John is more deeply knowledgeable about politics and its mechanisms than anyone I’ve ever known,” she says.
Moser and Burton expected a few hundred people to sign up but were hit with a torrent. On Day 1, Daily Action got 3,000 volunteers. By Inauguration Day, the number reached 40,000. The Women’s March pushed it past 100,000, as activists discovered, in Moser’s phrase, how to “use your phone to fight Trump.”
The moves Burton and Moser were orchestrating gave a sense of agency to Resisters and had tangible effects. When the travel ban hit, they didn’t just rally supporters. They shared the phone numbers of 189 U.S. Customs and Border Protection offices at airports and gave callers a script saying that detaining travelers was wrong and insisting they be released. “Those little airport offices are used to getting calls from FedEx or importers,” Burton says. “But they were the weakest link. We told volunteers, ‘Be polite, but give them a terrible day.’ ” One agent at Louis Armstrong New Orleans International Airport was so besieged with callers, he pretended to be an answering machine.
As the matter of Russian electoral meddling came to dominate the news shortly after Trump’s inauguration, Burton wanted to bring pressure on the Department of Justice. Knowing that Washington power is driven more by mundane parochial concerns than lofty idealism, he unleashed 78,000 callers not on the executive branch but on the Senate Judiciary Committee, to demand that a special counsel be appointed to investigate Russia. Committee senators oversee the Justice Department and control its budget, so their pressure, if applied, can’t be ignored. “The insider logic was that this would create a huge headache for them, and they would in turn go to the Justice Department and say, ‘Make this headache go away,’ ” Burton says. Robert Mueller was appointed special counsel soon after.
Burton was living a double life, banking by day and organizing by night—sometimes all night. “Being on the West Coast turned out to be great, because I’d be up overnight and then hit people with their marching orders just as they were waking up on the East Coast and reacting to the news,” he says. But the scale of the enterprise made this schedule impossible to sustain. Daily Action’s first phone bill was for $40,000, which Burton worried he’d have to help cover with his J.P. Morgan bonus. Then, in April, as the group approached 300,000 members, Moser announced she was moving to Texas to run for Congress. “It’s just one of those things that was happening right after Trump,” he says. “People were quitting their jobs to start Resistance groups, and then quitting their Resistance groups to run for Congress.”
Burton was at a crossroads, but he didn’t struggle with his decision. “He was making money, had a great job, was on the right career track,” Moser says. “But when Trump won, he knew he had to jettison his old life.” His boss guessed he was quitting before Burton summoned the nerve to tell him.
He took control of Daily Action and led it until September 2017, by which point joining forces with a larger institution made sense. MoveOn.org acquired the group, and Burton suddenly found himself with free time. Having advised startups as a banker, he now sought to launch one himself in politics. Resistance volunteers were already being deployed in daily activism, voter registration, and fundraising, but nobody had tried to harness that energy for opposition research. Doing so at a mass scale posed enormous logistical challenges, and few political professionals imagined that amateurs could do the work. “If I were just coming off a campaign or the Hill, I’d underestimate what volunteers are capable of doing,” Burton says. “After Daily Action, I knew what was possible.”
Odd as it may sound, his approach to citizen oppo owes a lot to amateur astronomers, who divvy up pieces of the night sky to search for new stars, comets, or signs of extraterrestrial intelligence. The key is making the research tasks as small and easily replicable as possible to guard against error. Using SurveyMonkey, Citizen Strong sends volunteers targeted assignments, prompting them to pull court records, for instance, or translate Russian articles, only bumping the material up the chain of command when three volunteers produce the same result.
Burton had no problem winning recruits, many of whom were already volunteering for Daily Action and proved to be effective diggers. Genevieve, the San Diego science teacher, had signed up for Daily Action when a relative of one of her Muslim students was detained during the travel ban. She jumped at the chance to investigate Rohrabacher, a nearby congressman. “I’d never engaged in politics at this level before,” she says. “But the job felt like second nature, pulling together data, helping to find photos of the Russians he’d met with. I’m trained as a scientist, so data collection is a very comfortable place for me to be.”
Choosing whom to go after was the next challenge. Burton knew Democrats in clear toss-up races would have sufficient resources to conduct their own research. So Citizen Strong concentrated on House races the Cook Political Report, a nonpartisan handicapper, rated “lean Republican,” where Democrats were likely to be new, underfunded, and unfamiliar with the darker side of politics. The group focused especially on state legislative contests in Michigan, Minnesota, Ohio, Wisconsin, and other states where the chambers are closely divided and the politicians unaccustomed to sophisticated attacks.
Citizen Strong’s liberal activists instinctively want to attack Republicans on gun control, abortion, or other social issues. But given the political geography of the group’s Republican targets, such attacks would likely hurt their cause. So their professional guides steered them toward a more constructive vector. Burton and his partners devised a “Midas Index” of Republicans, including Representatives Bruce Poliquin of Maine and Erik Paulsen of Minnesota, who’d taken more than $1 million in PAC money from Wall Street or Big Pharma. Alleging greed or complicity in the opioid crisis, as Burton intends to do, is more apt to engender anger in swing voters than the thorny cultural issues many Resisters would prefer.
More colorful was the “Sloth Index.” Volunteers tracked the attendance and output of incumbents, including Facebook posts, videos, and press releases, on the theory that those who didn’t bother showing up for work, and didn’t do much when they did, would be easier to pick off. Many of the politicians on the list have never faced a tough race and so haven’t taken elementary precautions such as registering their own domain names. Burton has snapped up 203 domains of incumbent Republicans that will soon bear the fruit of his researchers’ efforts. Voters searching for information on Representatives Mike Bost of Illinois and Dave Schweikert of Arizona will discover their fondness for staying at Ritz-Carltons and the Waldorf Astoria, a perilous habit in light of Trump’s attacks on the Washington “Swamp.” For Tyler Vorpagel, a Wisconsin state representative who’s voted to cut public assistance programs, readers will learn that his wife collected unemployment while she was running his first campaign in 2014, all the while posting Instagram pictures of herself (and her dog Teddy) at happy hours and baseball games. (“My wife spent countless hours looking for a new job and never turned down a job that was offered to her,” Vorpagel says in a statement. “[T]he bills we passed require everyone to look at welfare benefits as temporary assistance, not a long-term lifestyle.”) Meanwhile, Rohrabacher.ru will feature Citizen Strong’s trove of materials on the Putin-friendly California congressman. And, if the Russian government shuts it down, ComradeRohrabacher.com will replace it.
Citizen Strong’s volunteer army has come together at a propitious moment. Not only has the Trump-fueled tumult of the past two years made hundreds of Republican incumbents vulnerable, but the past decade has seen an explosion of information sources that anybody can mine. “There’s so much just sitting out there that’s been made available through sunshine laws, through states posting personal financial disclosures and putting lobbyist disclosures online, and through social media,” Burton says. “There’s just a ton of content, far more than there was when I was starting out 10 years ago.”
Burton laughs as he shares more highlights of what his researchers turned up, tidbits he’s not yet willing to put on the record. Sometimes, it’s best to spring the trap at the last moment. “This is what gets found when you have an army who can read every line of every document,” he says.
After Nov. 6, we’ll know if that’s enough to hand political power back to the Democrats.
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