On Friday, NBC News—and then last night, The Washington Post—reported that, in 2014, the controversial firm Cambridge Analytica had dispatched foreign nationals to assist with Republican campaigns in Colorado, Oregon, and North Carolina, possibly running afoul of a federal law that prohibits foreign agents from “directly or indirectly participat[ing] in the decision-making process” of a political campaign.
The Post quotes former CA workers saying they worried “the company was giving its foreign employees potentially inaccurate immigration documents to provide upon entering the United States, showing that they were not there to work when they had arrived for the purpose of advising campaigns.” (Providing false visa information would be a crime.)
According to NBC, one of the campaigns for which CA’s foreign agents did work was Thom Tillis’s. In 2014, Tillis narrowly defeated Senator Kay Hagan in one of the most expensive Senate battles in American history, relying in part on CA data to target Hagan for her absences from Senate Armed Services Committee hearings.
“But Chris Wylie, a 28-year-old Canadian who ran messaging for Cambridge out of its London office in 2014, said he worked on all the company’s U.S. political campaigns in 2014, ‘and stopped at most of them, like Thom Tillis’s campaign.’ … Wylie said that his largely foreign team instructed the Tillis campaign ‘on the messaging. We crafted his messaging, we targeted his messaging.’
He said he couldn’t recall any American Cambridge employees working on the Tillis campaign. ‘There were three or four full-time CA staffers embedded in Tillis’s campaign on the ground in Raleigh. All of them were foreign nationals.’
“Wylie said the workers were flown from London to North Carolina in July.”
Tillis’s campaign says the foreign agents couldn’t have worked for the campaign because the campaign wasn’t based in Raleigh but rather Cornelius, outside of Charlotte. They must have worked for the North Carolina Republican Party. This was apparently confirmed to NBC by an NCGOP spokesman: “A spokesman for the Republican Party of North Carolina also said the Cambridge Analytica workers were not embedded in the Tillis
but worked for the state party.”
On Saturday, the Tillis campaign issued the following statement to WRAL [emphasis mine], again clearly indicating that the foreign agents embedded with the state party:
“This is an embarrassingly sloppy and factually false article by NBC News, which apparently doesn’t understand that a candidate’s campaign and a state party are not the same things. The Tillis campaign committee was based in and operated out of Cornelius, not Raleigh. Contrary to the false ‘reporting’ by NBC News, Cambridge Analytica staffers were not embedded in the Tillis campaign. Had NBC News bothered to do basic fact checking beforehand, they would have avoided the embarrassment of putting out this misinformation.”
But by the time of the Post story on Sunday, the state party was singing a different tune.
“Dallas H. Woodhouse, the North Carolina GOP’s director, said that the party paid Cambridge Analytica $150,000 in 2014 for get-out-the-vote efforts and mail operations on behalf of Tillis and other GOP candidates but that he was not aware of any foreign workers involved with the effort. The party would not tolerate any unethical behavior by a vendor, he said.
“‘No foreign workers worked for us,’ Woodhouse said.”
Somebody’s not telling the truth. The Cambridge Analytica whistleblowers say they were dispatched to Raleigh to work for Tillis, part of a larger effort the Post portrays as something as a test show or demonstration ahead of the 2016 presidential election—and we know the Tillis campaign paid CA $30,000 in 2014 for “microtargeting” and then a $100,000 “win bonus” in 2015. (CA was paid nearly $6 million by the Trump campaign.) But Tillis says they actually worked for the NCGOP, which paid CA $150,000 for get-out-the-vote efforts on behalf of Tillis and other Republican candidates. And now Woodhouse, contradicting his own spokesman, says no foreign agents worked for the NCGOP, implying that the CA workers who talked to the Post and NBC are lying.
Not all of these things can be true.
Of course, the alternative for Woodhouse is admitting that the North Carolina Republican Party might have been involved—unwittingly or otherwise—in some illegal chicanery with a shady foreign firm funded by right-wing zealots.
Update: In an email to the INDY, NCGOP executive director Dallas Woodhouse writes that, even if Cambridge Analytica hired foreign agents to work for the state party, that doesn’t mean they did anything wrong. His statement:
The NBC report has factual mistakes. We also think they misidentify who the unnamed quote comes from.
Nevertheless, here are the facts about the NCGOP and this matter: The North Carolina Republican party did not employ foreign workers. This can be verified by the public records available through FEC and State Board of Elections reports. Who we hire and pay is a matter of public record.
We do not control who our vendors hire. We don’t know who they hire. Nor would it be illegal or unethical if a vendor hired some 22-year-old NC State College student, who is a Canadian citizen.
If they did, we would have no way of knowing. And if they did, it would be lawful, because they didn’t make any decisions about the campaign. They would not be in a decision-making role. They provided data analytics and research for the direct mail program.
We would tell a vendor they had to act openly and ethically and within the law, and if they don’t, that would prevent them from future work. We don’t have any plans to work with them anyway and haven’t in four years. One of the reasons is because the Republican National Committee data is so good, and it’s a heck of a lot cheaper.
We don’t rely on any single-source data provider, if for no other reason, If one company’s wrong, then you’re really in trouble politically In 2014, the NCGOP used I-360, we used RNC data, we used Cambridge, we used voter records from the North Carolina] Board of Elections – all of that goes into an aggregate data file that we control and decide what to do with it.
This is a nonstory as regards to us or the Tillis campaign.