By Jonathan Swan – – – – –
Campaign operatives who competed against Donald Trump in the Republican primaries are bristling at suggestions they failed to fully investigate the businessman during his march to the nomination.
Trump’s campaign has been rocked by multiple accusations of sexual misconduct, which came to light after a damaging video was uncovered this month from 2005 in which the businessman talks about grabbing women “by the p—-.”
Before that, Democratic presidential nominee Hillary Clinton steered media attention toward Trump’s treatment of women by calling out Trump’s mockery of a former Miss Universe as “Miss Piggy.”
With each new revelation, political observers wonder: How did such damaging material escape the attention of the 16 Republicans Trump beat during the primaries?
Mike Murphy, who led the $118 million super PAC effort to elect Jeb Bush, said it’s “horses—” to suggest his team didn’t do enough opposition research on Trump.
He said his critics — some of whom were rival consultants and prefer to remain anonymous — were being unfair when they said he should have spent less on TV ads and more on digging dirt on Trump.
“To assume that if we had some oppo guy paying women to come forward,” said Murphy, “and we could’ve with telepathy known who they were, and then we would’ve just given it to the papers and they would’ve all printed it, is just an amateur fantasy about how oppo works.”
Others in the GOP see things differently.
“It’s political malpractice on behalf of Mike Murphy, and negligence to not do the homework on a guy that’s winning primaries,” said an influential Republican fundraiser, who spoke to The Hill on the condition of anonymity.
“I happen to believe that all of this should have come out [during the primaries],” he said.
“If you put money out there, this s— comes, believe me.”
‘There are limits to opposition research’
Republican operatives who worked for Trump’s top rivals say the media has a lot to answer for when it comes to vetting Trump.
NBC, for example, owned the “Access Hollywood” tape in which Trump was caught on a hot mic talking to host Billy Bush about groping women without their consent.
“I had somebody ask me the other day, ‘Aren’t you mad at Billy Bush [for not giving his cousin Jeb the damaging tape]?’ ” said Tim Miller, the former spokesman for Jeb Bush’s campaign.
“And I’m like, ‘Well, no. … I don’t know all the ins and outs. I don’t know if he realized how bad it was,’ ” Miller said. “I’m mad at NBC, who has a news reporting budget that is probably 50 to 100 [times] what our campaign budget was.”
Added a senior operative from another of Trump’s rival GOP primary campaigns: “What are we supposed to do? Break into NBC and steal their tapes?”
Nor, these operatives argued, would it have been easy for opposition researchers to find women to come forward with sexual allegations against Trump.
Jeff Sadosky, who served as communications director for a super PAC backing Sen. Marco Rubio(Fla.), said it’s naive to imagine that a good opposition researcher could have unearthed these stories sooner.
“Everyone assumed there were closets full of skeletons,” said Sadosky, “but the best opposition researcher in the world won’t find a woman on a plane 30 years ago until she’s ready to tell her story.”
Katie Packer, an experienced GOP operative who led a well-funded effort to stop Trump, said, “I think these women, who have only shared these stories with close friends up until now, became unglued when they heard him bragging about this behavior on tape and then denying he’d ever done it at the debate.
“There are limits to opposition research.”
But it’s not as if there wasn’t other evidence out there of Trump’s treatment of women.
During the first GOP primary debate, on Fox News in August 2015, co-moderator Megyn Kelly asked Trump about a series of derogatory comments he’d made about women. These included calling women he doesn’t like “fat pigs, dogs, slobs and disgusting animals.”
Kelly’s question enraged Trump and made her a target.
None of Trump’s rivals, however, did much with Kelly’s research, and it never became a big issue during the primaries. Nor did they pounce when BuzzFeed published a story in February dredging up hours of audio of Trump making crude remarks about women to radio host Howard Stern.
Trump was undoubtedly helped in the primaries by the size of the field.
He had so many competitors that few candidates had the cash to invest in deep opposition research against him.
Some candidates — particularly Bush, Rubio and Sen. Ted Cruz (Texas) in the later stages — hit Trump on his business record, including his now-defunct Trump University. But during the primaries, these candidates too often had to allocate precious resources to defend against daily attacks from candidates other than Trump.
“We were not a cash-rich campaign,” said Matt Beynon, a top adviser to GOP candidate Rick Santorum. “We had to make a lot of difficult decisions on how we used our resources.
“Right to Rise and the Bush campaign,” added Beynon, “they had the luxury of a lot of money. They chose to use their opposition research on other candidates … such as Sen. Rubio.”
Even the Bush campaign, however, had to pare back opposition research to save money.
Miller said the Bush campaign had a three-person research team to produce opposition material on 16 candidates. The campaign was firing people and cutting costs from early on. Still, those three produced a book of opposition research on Trump, which Miller said Bush used to hit Trump for his casino dealings.
Miller contrasted the Bush team’s fairly basic opposition research on Trump to the years-long effort required to do serious opposition research. He said the GOP opposition group America Rising, which Miller co-founded, started its Clinton research book in the summer of 2013.
“With Trump, who came out of nowhere to run, you’re building this file as you’re flying the plane,” said Miller.
“Hindsight being 20/20,” Miller added, “obviously, we would’ve spent more time on Trump.”
Trump in a crowd
Miller doesn’t believe Bush would’ve benefited from an early leaking of the “Access Hollywood” tape. It would have been tough to find a Trump voter who had Bush as his second choice. Bush, therefore, had no strategic imperative to call out Trump early, even though he was one of the few candidates who did.
Such calculations get at one of the major reasons Trump’s rivals — who wanted to get down to a one-on-one race against him — didn’t go after the GOP nominee until it was too late.
“There’s a game theory element to this,” Miller said, “where everybody was looking out for their own best interests and nobody’s best interest was to go after Trump … because each candidate that did end up going after him ended up hurting themselves.”
Cruz spent much of 2015 praising Trump, so his belated attacks didn’t seem authentic. He also had a relatively weak opposition research team.
Similarly, Rubio, who did have a top opposition guy, waited until late February to begin attacking Trump, as he saw no benefits to go after the front-runner earlier. Rubio’s team was fixated on defending against well-funded attack ads from the pro-Bush super PAC Right to Rise.
Trump’s only other serious rival, retired neurosurgeon Ben Carson, was never going to get into the mud with Trump, as doing so would go against his Christian principles.
“With Dr. Carson, we were never going to attack an opponent,” said Ed Brookover, Carson’s former campaign manager who later worked for Trump.
“No oppo for us.”
Would any of it have worked?
Trump’s rivals were slow to take him seriously and even slower to do serious research into his past.
Still, more than half a dozen sources who worked on Trump’s rival campaigns expressed private doubts that any opposition research would’ve stopped a candidate with such blindly loyal supporters.
Of the Monday morning quarterbacking, so prevalent now in Washington Republican circles, Murphy said, “Mostly it’s rearview mirror sour grapes from rival campaigns that all had millions of their own.”