As a general rule, firms that quietly try to influence voters or consumers aren’t terribly interested in having a massive public profile. It’s important that candidates and companies know who they are, of course, but generally the influence-peddling industry grows better in the dark, like a fungus.
So it’s safe to say that Cambridge Analytica’s view of its position last week — a small but influential persuasion firm credited as integral to Donald Trump’s surprise presidential win — was preferable to where it is now.
On Friday, Facebook suspended the company from its platform for using data that was collected in violation of the social media site’s terms. That move prompted a spate of news stories about Cambridge and what it does, not all of it flattering.
But that was nothing compared to a report released by Britain’s Channel 4 News on Monday afternoon. In a series of undercover conversations, Channel 4 reporters pretended to be seeking Cambridge’s professional help for a campaign in Sri Lanka. The result was videotape of senior Cambridge executives — including chief executive Alexander Nix — discussing far more than political persuasion.
From that report:
“In one exchange, when asked about digging up material on political opponents, Mr. Nix said they could ‘send some girls around to the candidate’s house,’ adding that Ukrainian girls “are very beautiful; I find that works very well.’ ”
“In another, he said: ‘We’ll offer a large amount of money to the candidate, to finance his campaign in exchange for land, for instance; we’ll have the whole thing recorded, we’ll blank out the face of our guy, and we post it on the Internet.’ ”
Nix also discussed how his firm could mask its involvement, either by masquerading as locals using fake IDs and websites or by contracting with others who could do the dirty work.
Cambridge’s efforts in the United States began only in 2013, when the company was founded as a branch of a British company called Strategic Communication Laboratories Group (SCL). Nix, an SCL director, was tapped to lead the new firm.
SCL’s experience was international, including working to influence elections in a number of developing countries. When Nix and other Cambridge staffers discuss underhanded tactics used to influence foreign elections, in other words, it’s SCL’s experience to which they’re presumably referring. The Channel 4 report mentions the firm’s work in Kenya in particular, and managing director Mark Turnbull is recorded discussing efforts in Eastern Europe.
Cambridge’s response to the Channel 4 investigation suggests that its employees were simply rolling with a prospective client.
“Assessing the legality and reputational risks associated with new projects is critical for us, and we routinely undertake conversations with prospective clients to try to tease out any unethical or illegal intentions,” it said in a statement provided to The Washington Post. “The two Cambridge Analytica executives at the meeting humoured these questions and actively encouraged the prospective client to disclose his intentions. They left with grave concerns and did not meet with him again.”
Nix was quoted directly: “In playing along with this line of conversation, and partly to spare our ‘client’ from embarrassment, we entertained a series of ludicrous hypothetical scenarios. I am aware how this looks, but it is simply not the case.”
It doesn’t seem as though Cambridge subsequently contacted British authorities about its concerns, if this was actually the intent of the meeting.
It’s true that there’s no proof that Nix’s and Turnbull’s comments were anything more than bluster. We noted elsewhere that Cambridge is, ultimately, a marketing firm whose primary client is itself. Maybe a willingness to entertain nefarious tactics is simply a way of securing business, and clients are steered away from such behavior once the firm is hired.
That said, SCL’s reputation precedes it. In March 2017, Bloomberg outlined various elections in which the company had been engaged around the world and the questionable tactics that had been deployed to its clients’ benefit. In 2005, Slate looked at the then-new firm’s sales pitch, suggesting that it sounded like a company predicated on propaganda. (“If your definition of propaganda is framing communications to do something that’s going to save lives, that’s fine,” the public affairs director told Slate.)
Nothing in the Channel 4 report directly implicates the Trump campaign. (The network is releasing another segment focused on the United States on Tuesday.) Cambridge was apparently created in part to address concerns about foreign companies being involved in American elections, but, according to the Campaign Legal Center’s Lawrence Noble, it is legal for a campaign to hire a consulting firm with foreign employees to bolster its campaign efforts.
What the story brings to mind more than anything is the track record of Paul Manafort, Trump’s former campaign chairman.
Before joining Trump’s team in early 2016, Manafort had a long history of working on behalf of ethically questionable efforts and regimes around the world: Ferdinand Marcos in the Philippines; Mobutu Sese Seko in Congo, and, most significantly, the Russian oligarch Oleg Deripaska, who is closely tied to Russian President Vladimir Putin.
Part of the issue, certainly, is that there’s lots of money to be made in unscrupulous international politics. Corrupt regimes tend to be wealthy ones.
It’s just remarkable that both Manafort and Cambridge wound up in close orbit of Trump.
How Manafort got there is pretty straightforward. Manafort was a longtime business partner of Trump’s friend Roger Stone, and when Trump was looking for someone to help corral delegates before the Republican convention, Stone recommended Manafort, who had experience in that work. In early 2016, Trump’s campaign was hobbled by his staunch opposition to the Republican establishment and, more broadly, by skepticism about his chances. The Trump campaign looped in a number of peripheral characters in part because many of the better-known and more experienced Republican consultants and advisers were allied with other campaigns or unwilling to join his insurgency.
How Cambridge got there is less direct. The company is bankrolled by Robert Mercer, a conservative megadonor whose profile skyrocketed over the past few years thanks to strategic investments in ventures such as Cambridge and Breitbart News. (Stephen K. Bannon, former White House chief strategist and Breitbart’s former executive chairman, was once a vice president of Cambridge.) Mercer partnered with SCL to bring the company to the United States; Trump’s team hired Cambridge in part, it seems safe to say, to facilitate the broader engagement of Mercer in his campaign. (Two months after the Trump campaign hired Cambridge, Manafort was out, replaced with Bannon.)
Trump’s candidacy was a scramble for resources and staffing directed by a candidate who, as president, has demonstrated that this is his modus operandi. Cycling in and out various staff and consultants means an increased likelihood of cycling in people with questionable or demonstrably shaky backgrounds, especially when the number of options at hand is small.
The president has insisted recently that constant staff turnover at the White House is no big deal, that “everybody wants to work at the White House.”
That a lot of people want access to power (or, by extension, money) is the problem in a nutshell.