When Barack Obama faced a group of House Republicans dead-set on digging up dirt about him and his administration, he didn't have a whole lot of backup.
The task of defending his administration on a daily basis against GOP investigations-from Benghazi to Fast and Furious-was largely left to a few Democratic lawmakers and a handful of White House staffers.
Now, a more conspiratorial and hard-edged crop of House Republicans is sharpening their investigative knives for President Joe Biden, eyeing everything from his handling of the Department of Justice to his son's business dealings.
Determined to prevent a rerun of the Obama years, top Democrats are standing up a pair of outside groups-the Congressional Integrity Project and Facts First USA-and building them for the sole purpose of running aggressive interference for Biden on the barrage of GOP probes from Capitol Hill.
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Staffed by the Democratic Party's masters of the dark arts of opposition research and spin, the groups are promising to apply bare-knuckled tactics in dealing with Republicans. Their ethos might be best encapsulated by the old sports cliché: the best defense is a good offense.
First created as an effort to counter Biden-related investigations from Senate Republicans in 2020, the Congressional Integrity Project has retooled ahead of the GOP's House takeover. The group has deep ties to the White House: insiders say its rebrand as the "leading war room" for GOP pushback was the brainchild of Anita Dunn, who is perhaps Biden's closest political adviser.
The group's goal is not only to discredit the GOP investigations but the members running them. It's already put out a lengthy dossier, for instance, attacking the new members of the House Oversight Committee. "If they want to play politics with it, we're perfectly happy to extract a political price," said Brad Woodhouse, a veteran Democratic operative on CIP's board.
"If they want to talk about somebody's family finances, then we'll investigate their family finances," Woodhouse continued. "If they want to investigate conflicts of interest, we'll investigate conflicts of interest."
Facts First USA, meanwhile, has its own connections to the high echelons of Democratic politics. It is spearheaded by David Brock, the onetime right-wing crusader who became one of the Democrats' fiercest partisan warriors, founding the oppo research hub American Bridge and the right-wing media watchdog Media Matters.
In an interview, Brock told The Daily Beast that Facts First-which he previously described as a "SWAT team" to counter GOP probes-will carry out so-called "rapid response" communications and research operations, along with polling.
With a $15 million budget in mind, their goal is to "be in every news cycle, every story where Republicans are making allegations, throwing mud," Brock said. That may include any story involving the president's son, Hunter. In fact, Brock has already had a sit-down meeting with the younger Biden.
Ahead of Biden's likely 2024 re-election campaign-which Republicans are hoping that their investigations will derail-the president and his team are set to enjoy a level of air cover that no incumbent president has ever enjoyed. While presidents facing adversarial investigations historically are helped by their allies in Congress and official party organizations, CIP and Facts First are the first outside organizations purpose-built to run interference.
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The White House did not respond to a request for comment for this article.
To Democrats who weathered GOP probes without much help, their arrival is a welcome development.
"I'm very jealous this team will have that," said Eric Schultz, a longtime Obama aide who was his point person in pushing back against the GOP volley. "The Obama experience of being subjected to Republicans that were completely unhinged likely informed the decision to do this."
"We were on our own," said Rep. Gerry Connolly (D-VA), who served on the Oversight Committee during the Obama years. "We effectively fought back, but Republicans usually got the headlines they wanted."
There's a strategic reason why these outside organizations could be far more valuable than White House and House Democrats simply hiring more staffers and throwing them at GOP investigations, Schultz said.
"When you're inside the administration, or in any sort of government role, there are a myriad of constraints that you are under when taxpayers pay your salary," he said. "None of those will apply to the outside groups."
In a statement to The Daily Beast, Oversight Committee Chairman James Comer (R-KY) said Republicans were "undeterred" by Democratic efforts to counter their investigations.
"Americans deserve transparency from the Biden administration for its self-inflicted crises but all they are getting is obstruction," Comer said. "Biden's White House is wasting taxpayer dollars and partnering with radical left-wing groups with the sole mission of stonewalling congressional oversight to hide the truth from the American people."
Many Democrats feel that when it comes to countering a vocal GOP majority and the right-wing media ecosystem that backs them up, the more groups that are involved, the merrier.
But the prospect of two well-funded and energetic groups performing similar tasks-on top of efforts from official actors in the White House, Congress, and Democratic Party-raises the risk of turf wars developing, or at the very least hiccups and headaches due to crossed wires.
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There is a perception that CIP enjoys a sort of preferred status in Bidenworld, though those involved with Facts First claim such a term would imply a distinction without a difference.
Brock said he "did not ask for permission" to start Facts First and made the case "there can be more than one operation" that is out front responding to GOP probes. "The reaction has been positive all the way around," he said. "I haven't heard anything other than that."
Woodhouse declined to comment about Facts First in his interview with The Daily Beast.
The two groups do share quite a lot in common. Both got busy long before House Republicans even organized their committees. For weeks, CIP has been blanketing reporters' inboxes daily with statements, articles, and reports, including its dossier on lawmakers named to the Oversight Committee. Its leaders have met with top Hill Democrats as well. Facts First, meanwhile, has held press conferences with well-known D.C. figures and has also briefed Democratic lawmakers.
Both groups are immersing themselves in compiling as much potentially damaging information as possible about GOP investigators. The process of gathering "opposition research" is usually left for campaign season, when party operatives try to land bombshell stories to sink their rivals' electoral chances. Many Republican lawmakers targeted by these groups, who represent safe seats, likely have not experienced the other side of that practice.
"We've got FOIA requests, we're going to courthouses, doing the traditional opposition research," Woodhouse said. "Some of this stuff is out there, but some of it's not."
Woodhouse added that researchers had been learning a lot about Kentucky-Comer's home state.
Both groups are organized under the federal tax code's 501(c)(4) classification, meaning they do not have to disclose their donors. Both Woodhouse and Brock declined to offer much beyond vague details about their groups' respective funding sources.
Brock outlined a budget target of $15 million for Facts First-which includes hiring 10 to 15 full time staffers-and he said an initial $1 million had already been raised. He claimed the money came from four "high net worth" individuals. With his close ties to Bill and Hillary Clinton, Brock is known as a capable fundraiser who has tapped Democratic big money players to fuel his various ventures.
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Woodhouse explained that CIP is aiming to hit a $10 million annual budget, with as many as 50 full and part time staff involved with the effort. When asked about CIP's funding, he said that "we raise from individuals and groups and foundations and we will, I'm sure, make a run at labor," given unions' support of Biden's agenda. In 2021, before the organization's retooling, it received a $1.5 million grant from the Sixteen Thirty Fund-another 501(c)(4)-that has been a critical dark money vehicle for progressive donors and power players.
As GOP probes ramp up, however, the two group's portfolios could diverge. CIP envisions itself playing a more traditional political role as the 2024 elections near: Woodhouse outlined plans for the group to hire local staffers working in as many as two dozen swing House districts currently held by Republicans. The idea, he said, is to "squeeze" these typically more moderate lawmakers by pressuring them over potentially more polarizing steps, like focusing on Hunter Biden's laptop.
Brock's outfit, meanwhile, may be more likely to go toe-to-toe with Republicans if they chase rabbit holes on more controversial and politically sensitive subjects in the West Wing and beyond-the touchiest of which is the president's son.
It's unclear how, exactly, House Republicans intend to approach Hunter Biden. But Hunter's business dealings with foreign entities were seen within the party as so potentially compromising that former President Donald Trump got himself impeached for abusing his power to dig up that dirt.
For months, the GOP rank and file have threatened to hold the Biden family "accountable," and some have called for a special committee to be created simply focusing on Hunter's stolen laptop. Other GOP lawmakers, however, have sought to pump the brakes, perhaps out of a belief that most Americans don't care all that much about the storyline.
For his part, Brock believes that Democrats cannot allow any Republican attack to go unanswered. He has been preparing to engage in pitched battle with them on the Hunter question.
While Brock declined to offer details on his conversation with Hunter in September, he said he left that meeting thinking there's a "solid narrative" to be told.
"I'm not ready to go there yet," he said, "but when Republicans start in earnest, issuing subpoenas and going to town, I'm confident we're going to have a good story to tell."
Still, the Hunter storyline reflects what may be Democrats' central anxiety in having so much firepower to train on GOP investigations.
"The thing we have to be careful about in managing," said Connolly, "is we don't unwittingly bring more attention to their narratives than we want to."
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