If President Trump wants good, honest dirt on his potential 2020 rival, former Vice President Joe Biden, let him have it. The occasional positive campaigning pledge aside, this is the stuff of ordinary politicking. It never hurts to remind the public "of what scoundrels your opponents are," advised Quintus Tullius Cicero, the younger brother of that Cicero, in 64 BC, and to "smear these men at every opportunity with the crimes, sexual scandals, and corruption they have brought on themselves." Negative campaigning is a stubbornly persistent part of politics.
But for some baffling reason, Trump can't seem to do it the normal way, as we're seeing anew with this week's scandal apparently involving Hunter Biden and Ukraine. (Read this timeline from my colleague Peter Weber if you need a quick summary of what we know so far.) The president, his family, and his team instead appear to prefer convoluted schemes with foreign governments that, ironically, provide Trump's critics with a stickier charge than anything these bumbling forays into international corruption have uncovered.
Here is how a regular politician would do it:
- Hire an opposition research firm to investigate an opponent.
- Pay them above the table with campaign funds duly reported to the Federal Election Commission.
- Review the information they gather.
- Put it in television ads with scary voiceovers, feature it in direct mail and email campaigns designed to frighten elderly supporters' fixed incomes right out of their checkbooks, and mention it at every debate or interview possible.
Here is what Trump seems to do instead:
- Either personally or through one of his children or underlings (and the extent of Trump's own involvement isn't always clear) make contact with a foreign official or some other shady person with ties to a foreign state.
- Have compromising communications with that person, whether by email ("If it's what you say, I love it, especially later in the summer"), by phone, or in person.
- Attempt to strike a deal to get the desired information.
- Get caught.
- Deny everything.
- Admit everything.
- Deny there's anything wrong with everything admitted.
- Get accused of treason.
- Declare it's all a hoax, fake news, persecution of Your Favorite President, etc.
- Deploy the TV sycophants to say the same.
- Hold a rally to be comforted by the implacable support of thousands.
- Make ads, mailings, emails, and talking points about the aforementioned persecution instead of actual wrongdoing by the targeted opponent.
- End up without any demonstrably true and actionable oppo research.
- Craft instead a barrage of vague and mercurial accusations to lob on Twitter whenever the news cycle isn't going your way.
Is that easier? Is it better? Clearly there's a sense in which it works for Trump, in which it plays well with his base. He won in 2016, after all. That his campaign tactics don't appeal to everyone doesn't mean they're unstrategic; for a certain audience and in pursuit of certain ends, the president is an excellent salesman.
But even acknowledging all that, I'm hard-pressed to see how this rigamarole is superior to simply doing things the normal way. Trump on Twitter insisted Thursday you'd have to be "dumb" to believe he would "would say something inappropriate with a foreign leader while on such a potentially 'heavily populated' call," adding in afterthought that he would "only do what is right anyway, and only do good for the USA."
The more obviously dumb thing in this scenario would be the president of the United States having Ukraine do his 2020 oppo research for him — and whether or not this investigation was coerced by withholding of aid funds apportioned by Congress, as looks to be the case, Trump's lawyer Rudy Giuliani has admitted to the research request itself.
So why do this? Why make things more complicated than they need to be? Why even take the risk? Why not just be normal?
The same questions could be asked about Donald Trump Jr.'s 2016 Trump Tower meeting, in which the president's son talked with a Russian lawyer with links to the Kremlin in an effort to get "dirt on Hillary Clinton." There, as here, it isn't odd for a presidential campaign to want negative information about a rival. But why would this seem like a good way to do it? Isn't the danger of unintended consequences obvious? Doesn't anyone know how durable email communications can be? (The "but her emails!" crowd of all people should realize this!) Again, why not just be normal?
There remains more than a year between now and Election Day (more's the pity), and the president's re-election fundraising is going gangbusters. That means Trump has both time and money aplenty to drop this weird, counterproductive, and at least seemingly corrupt approach to oppo research. For all our sakes, he should do so posthaste.
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