The Republican Party’s research director, Mike Reed, found out about Sen. Elizabeth Warren’s DNA test before he got out of bed Monday. From his bedroom, the GOP attack machine started whirring.
At the White House, President Trump and his aides initially played down the news. Adviser Kellyanne Conway told reporters “that doesn’t interest me” and Trump said “Who cares?” when asked about the new evidence that the Massachusetts Democrat had Native American heritage.
But the Republican story began to change at 9:46 a.m., when Reed blasted out his first email to thousands of reporters and allies, laying out new talking points for his side — that Warren’s test result showed a “minuscule” percentage of native heritage in her DNA and would not end the political problems that had beset her since opponents suggested she had advanced her career by claiming such ancestry.
“Having as little as 1/512th Native American ties does not give you the right to claim minority status,” he wrote — a quote that soon started showing up on Twitter feeds and in news stories across the country.
It was just the beginning of a week-long anti-Warren onslaught that the Republican National Committee worked to orchestrate from its headquarters in Washington, an effort that helped blunt what Warren had hoped would be a moment of vindication before her likely 2020 presidential campaign.
And it was another trophy for a team of about 60 GOP researchers, bookers and attack dogs who spend their time churning out the ammunition that conservative media and Trump supporters use daily to pummel the president’s foes.
The relentless stream of carefully curated — and sometimes misleading — political hits has been throwing Democrats off message for months while steadily stoking the daily fires of conservative outrage that power Trump’s political movement.
“I understand their weaponry, and frankly I don’t underestimate it at all,” said one aide to a Democrat considering a 2020 campaign, speaking on the condition of anonymity to discuss strategy. “They are really effective when they want to be. Within an hour, they are all on the same message and they are all pushing it.”
The party operation — which includes a research shop of 15 and a 10-person war room that scans news and video streams for Democratic slip-ups — has established itself with a broad mandate that not only includes the midterm elections and the coming 2020 contest but also seeks to attack former Trump administration officials who criticize the president.
“We average over 1 million views a week on Twitter, and we have 15 million views on our YouTube page this cycle,” Reed said of the video component of the operation. “We have an extremely large megaphone.”
Some Democrats have watched the operation with trepidation. They worry that Republicans have doubled down on online rapid response focused on protecting Trump and attacking his potential challengers while Democrats have refocused their resources, for the moment, on the midterm elections.
Recent improvements in Trump’s approval rating and the release this week of a new national television ad from the group Future45 attacking Democrats as a group highlighted the concern that the party has become too focused on particular midterm races.
“Whose job is it exactly in the center-left ecosystem to take on Trump directly?” Simon Rosenberg, a Democratic strategist who runs the think tank NDN, asked in a blog post Wednesday. “Imagine if $50m had been directed against him in recent months. . . . Would it have made a difference in the coming elections? Of course it would have.”
This cycle, Democrats have made a strategic decision to channel money to candidates in an effort to empower them in specific races, usually with ads that focus on issues. There are plans in the works on the Democratic side to shift resources after November. Priorities USA, a Democratic super PAC that has focused on digital ads in the 2018 midterm elections, plans to join the Democratic National Committee next year in standing up a rapid-response operation focused on highlighting Trump’s behavior.
“Priorities will be devoting significant resources in 2019 and 2020 to bridging the gap between traditional press outreach and traditional digital advertising to communicate directly with voters and conversation drivers to hold Trump accountable on a daily basis,” said Josh Schwerin, a spokesman for the group.
“Democrats don’t have the benefit of the conservative media echo chamber emanating out from Fox News, so it will always look a bit different on our side,” he added.
The Democratic Party’s rapid-response operation also plans to increase its output on Trump after the midterm elections, after a campaign season that has focused heavily on driving issues that favor midterm Democrats, including health-care costs, the Republican tax bill and education.
“We’ve been making our case to the American people on the issues that matter most to them, but we’re very excited to hear that the RNC is so pleased with its rapid-response operation,” said Adrienne Watson, a spokeswoman for the DNC. “The Affordable Care Act is more popular than ever, GOP candidates can’t even talk about the tax cuts that were supposed to be their signature campaign issue, and most Americans want to counter Trump’s agenda by electing a Democratic Congress. So whatever it is they’re doing over there, we hope they stick with it.”
Democratic consultants expect the public attacks on Trump over social media to increase dramatically after the midterms. “Come November 7, it will fall on the shoulders of the Democratic Party to run interference for its field of potential nominees,” Brad Woodhouse, who was the communications director for the party in the 2012 cycle, said in an email. “Daily, relentless and no holds barred.”
Those adjectives fit the Republican operation as well. About one hour after Reed’s first blast Monday morning, the Republican Party’s rapid-response director, Michael Ahrens, sent out a tweet pointing to a 2014 New York Times story that listed the average European American share of Native American genomes as being higher than the report released by Warren. The tweet took off on conservative social media and was shared more than 7,000 times, getting more than 1 million “impressions,” or deliveries into Twitter streams. Later in the day, the tweet was read on Fox News.
That point was underscored when the Boston Globe, which broke news of the DNA test, corrected its own story to report that Warren’s test suggested that as little as 1/1024 of her genome might come from Native American heritage.
“We went from shrugged shoulders to raised eyebrows,” Conway said. “What our rapid response has been able to do is break through the noise.”
By the afternoon, broader questions about the import of Warren’s tests began to spread through the media, aided by a criticism from the Cherokee Nation about Warren’s decision to publicize the DNA tests.
“My goal primarily is to put out material that I think could persuade a left-of-center member of the press,” Ahrens said. “If I can change your mind, the base is going to like it, too.”
So will one influential reader: Posted on a wall in the war room is a copy of one missive pushing back on the Russia investigation. “Michael, so true. A witch hunt. Thank you,” reads a note scribbled in unmistakable thick black marker by Trump.
In recent weeks, the Republican operation, which includes a partnership with the Republican tracking firm America Rising, an independent political action committee, has created storms of controversy over former attorney general Eric H. Holder Jr.’s metaphorical contention that Democrats should kick Republicans when they “go low” and the claim by Sen. Cory Booker (D-N.J.) that those who supported the Supreme Court nomination of Brett M. Kavanaugh were “complicit in the evil.” Both clips became staples of prime-time Fox News programming.
That was typical of how the Republican effort is aided by an ecosystem of conservative media that is fueled by outrage over Democratic behavior. “It is totally normal to see a video go up on our YouTube page, and then within an hour there be a post on a Daily Caller, or Washington Free Beacon, or Breitbart, or the Washington Examiner, and then it goes from there,” Ahrens said.
The party often tries to produce material with the goal of going viral, including fake book covers of the latest tell-all White House insider accounts. Departed officials such as former FBI director James B. Comey and former White House aide Omarosa Manigault Newman have also become targets of the operation. Clips of House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.), a favorite Republican target, are also regular features of the operation.
The president in January retweeted a fake RNC-made cover of Michael Wolff’s book “Fire and Fury,” with the mocking title “Liar and Phony.” The cover image was later flashed on NBC’s “Meet the Press” during an interview with Wolff.
Democrats positioning themselves for likely presidential runs have begun to adjust their strategies to provide a viral counterbalance to Trump and the GOP infrastructure.
While her DNA release stumbled, Warren in particular has tried to prepare for online fisticuffs, hiring an experienced video and social media team into her Senate campaign that can transfer to a presidential effort if she runs.
As the Globe story came out, she released a well-produced video that earned millions of impressions, telling the story of her family’s story about Native American heritage, with interviews from officials who hired her explaining that her heritage gave her no advantage in getting her academic jobs.
After Trump shifted tack and went on offense Tuesday, repeating his racially tinged nickname for Warren, “Pocahontas,” and calling her DNA test “bogus,” she seemed to welcome the challenge, responding with a string of tweeted attacks on the president. She accused him of making “creepy physical threats about me” and denounced his use of “nicknames,” “racial slurs” and “conspiracy theories.”
In the wake of the suspected assassination of Washington Post contributing columnist Jamal Khashoggi in Turkey, allegedly by a team with links to Saudi Arabia’s crown prince, Warren’s Senate campaign posted a 21-second video with 2016 campaign footage of Trump praising Saudis as his business customers. “Who are you really working for @realDonaldTrump?” the Warren campaign asked.
Reed responded with a new email, listing dozens of news stories about backlash to Warren’s DNA test results. His subject line: “Elizabeth Warren refuses to apologize after brutal 72 hours.”
Both sides were playing to separate political audiences in an early preview of the online warfare to come.