On the Trail: The Woman Leading GOP Efforts to Discredit Hillary
WHY YOU SHOULD CARE
Because her opposition research has made its mark — and there may be more in store.
Huddled in their Virginia office, Alex Angel and her colleagues at America Rising have one main mission: Take down the Iron Lady of American politics. Six “watchers,” as Angel calls them, communicate via Slack to avoid talking over a dozen monitors in a windowless war room. Everything is fair game. Some transcribe speeches. Others watch for hypocrisy. A few just track Hillary Clinton’s facial expressions — did she blink too often, or look smug? Could those images make for a good GIF?
The scandalous stuff goes to Angel’s eight-person research team. “We’re the ones that put the puzzle together,” says Angel, the group’s vice president for presidential research. After sorting “what sticks, what doesn’t stick,” her work is used in rapid-response efforts on Twitter, Facebook, email lists and blogs. “It’s chaos,” Angel says, “but it’s controlled chaos.”
With somebody like Hillary Clinton, we always believe it’s death by a thousand cuts.
Alex Angel, vice president for presidential research at America Rising
This is the modern scene of mudslinging: less cloak-and-dagger and more Big Brother with twitchy, Twitter-happy fingers. And Angel is driving these efforts. Her team has had a number of high-profile successes, including being the first to reveal that Clinton lied about using “a single device” on her email server, an attack that’s stuck like superglue. One of the videos they leaked to CNN was followed by team Clinton promising to run a carbon-neutral campaign — a vow they haven’t upheld, Angel notes gleefully. In an election where old video recordings, WikiLeaks and Russian hackers reign supreme, could Angel’s team unearth yet another October surprise?
Her colleagues at America Rising include 25 full-time trackers across pivotal swing states — 190 team members with freelancers — and they streamline intel, research and communications work in a way that’s unprecedented on the right. The closest comparison is the left-leaning American Bridge, which America Rising was modeled after when it was created in 2013. They’ve been creative with their tactics, attacking Clinton from the left during the primary to discourage Bernie Sanders backers from voting for her in the general, while also investing in digital ads that other firms are slow to accept.
Their approach has attracted the attention of the Republican House and Senate Congressional Committees, as well as various super PACs, which have all hired America Rising to lead a conservative counterattack. “I’ve been really impressed,” says David McIntosh, president of the conservative Club for Growth. “They’ve taken on the research function for the Republican Party — which was in shambles.” Ned Ryun, the founder of center-right American Majority, says he only wishes Angel’s organization could be “10 times bigger. Instead of our guys being on our heels all the time, we can now punch back.”
It’s a lot of attention for the work led by Angel, who is not used to being the one in the spotlight. The California daughter of a Philippine immigrant family became enamored with politics as a high school junior when she visited Washington, D.C. Now she’s right outside the Beltway, shaping the public discourse — self-conscious as she poses for photos. She’s typically the intel-gatherer, not the subject. What’s more, the 30-year-old has one of the most daunting tasks of all. Because how do you dig up new dirt on perhaps the most scrutinized woman in history?
That’s “the biggest challenge,” Angel admits, but she aims to reach younger voters for whom Clinton isn’t already so defined. America Rising covered all of the Democratic primary debates and is now watching every statement made by Clinton or her surrogates. Plus, they boast a massive video archive going back to Clinton’s days as first lady of the United States and of Arkansas. All that comes in handy in creating rapid-response videos that reach millions online, such as the piece that showed Clinton promising to “put a lot of coal miners out of business” — which may have helped Bernie win the West Virginia primary by a landslide — and another that spoofs her struggling to use the New York City subway.
Oppo researchers are known for tracking down saucy photos or damning financial records. “The Dumpster divers,” as Angel puts it, “trying to find the skeletons in the closet.” It’s true that this old-school style was used to great effect — the check that toppled Richard Nixon, the leaked “47 percent” video that crushed Mitt Romney. Still, the real value is in crafting and perpetuating narratives over the long term, Angel says. In Clinton’s case, that means taking old charges – Angel puts them in three buckets, written on her office whiteboard: “Unethical,” “Untrustworthy” and “Failed leader” — and making them fresh with new proof points. “It’s not always the silver bullet,” Angel says. “With somebody like Hillary Clinton, we always believe it’s death by a thousand cuts.”
Having spent all that time scrutinizing her enemy, including during her first stint fighting President Obama in ’08, it could be said that Angel knows more about Democrats than many Democrats do. “It’s not something I probably want to talk about much,” she intones. Surprisingly, though, it’s giving her a genuine respect for Clinton’s talents. “She is persistent,” Angel says. “No matter what is thrown at her camp, whether it’s right or wrong, she is very thick-skinned. It’s very frustrating for us.”