Donald Trump Jr. and the History of Opposition Research From Foreign Sources

Jul 13, 2017

As Donald Trump Jr. has weathered a week of revelations about his June 2016 meeting with a Russian lawyer, one of his early arguments that there was nothing improper about the meeting — which he went into having been promised information that could damage Hillary Clinton's campaign — was that gathering dirt on a political adversary during an election is standard operating procedure. That was the idea he expressed in a sarcastic tweet making the argument that he "had to listen":

While Trump is right that conducting campaign opposition research is nothing new, experts on the history of presidential elections argue that the nuances of his meeting may make it one of a kind. At issue is the question of the source of that opposition research.

Could he be the first person to knowingly accept a meeting of this kind with a foreign national, with the purpose of gaining opposition research? Well, it’s complicated. Here are some historical parallels to Trump Jr.'s meeting, both of which just happen to involve the Soviet Union:

One instance took place in the lead-up to the 1960 presidential campaign. Eventual Democratic nominee John F. Kennedy — the candidate whom Soviet leaders hoped would prevail — was contacted by Soviet ambassador Mikhail Menshikov, as Michael Beschloss recounts in his book The Crisis Years: Kennedy and Khrushchev, 1960-1963. When Menshikov showed up at the Massachusetts Senator's office, Beschloss writes, Kennedy kept it short, and turned down an offer of future time spent together, afraid the Soviets would use the meeting to "embarrass" him. (Even so, Beschloss explains, Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev, head of the Soviet Union during the 1950s and '60s, told Kennedy after the election that he had "voted" for him. "We kept Nixon from being able to claim that he could deal with the Russians," Khrushchev told Kennedy. The president responded, "You're right. I admit you played a role in the election and cast your vote for me.")

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Years later the Soviets would make another bid to influence an American election. In 1968, then-Vice President and Democratic presidential candidate Hubert H. Humphrey was contacted by Soviet ambassador Anatoly Dobrynin about helping his campaign, UVA Miller Center research specialist Ken Hughes told TIME in an email.

In Dobrynin’s memoir, the ambassador writes that he was ordered by Soviet leaders to offer Humphrey “any conceivable help in his election campaign — including financial aid.” Humphrey accepted the offer to meet, not knowing what the purpose of it was. But when they met, Humphrey was unfazed. He “knew at once what was going on,” according to Dobrynin, and declined the ambassador's offer.

But that same year, Hughes adds, Humphrey’s opponent and Republican presidential nominee Richard Nixon did use a foreign power to gain a leg-up in the campaign. However, the event, known as the Chennault Affair, did not involve opposition research. Instead, Nixon secretly pressed South Vietnamese President Nguyen Van Thieu to push back the Paris peace talks. President Lyndon B. Johnson had arranged the accords and Nixon thought that the peace effort would benefit Humphrey politically. Nixon’s plan worked – Thieu announced three days before the election that his government would boycott the talks.

So, does that mean Trump Jr. really is a first? As with anything in history, the answer is nuanced.

"I simply do not know the answer," Hughes told TIME. "In the past, when the Russian government offered its support for a presidential candidate like Hubert Humphrey, he rejected it immediately. Trump Jr. welcomed it enthusiastically."

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