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WASHINGTON — As Republicans prepare to use their new House majority to probe the Biden administration and the business dealings of the president’s son, Hunter, Democrats are assembling a constellation of groups to respond.
President Joe Biden hasn’t said if he’s running for re-election, but the groups are designed to defend him and discredit the opposition — including launching intense opposition research efforts into Republicans leading the charge in Congress — ahead of a likely rematch with former President Donald Trump in 2024.
Three new “war rooms” have sprung up in the past two weeks to combat the House Republicans’ investigations, each backed by multimillion-dollar dark money budgets and some of the best-known operatives in the Democratic Party. Meanwhile, the Democratic National Committee and major outside groups are already retooling to shift from 2022 to 2024.
“It’s clear the White House has been preparing for the anticipated barrage of meritless investigations from House Republicans, and outside groups are an essential component,” said Adrienne Elrod, who helped run Correct the Record, which defended Hillary Clinton from congressional probes before her 2016 presidential campaign was up and running.
Every White House has faced congressional investigations. But the surfeit of well-funded groups shows eagerness among Democratic donors to defend Biden — or at least stop Trump — and a recognition that the fight over public opinion is at least as important as the legal one, since it will lay the groundwork for the next campaign.
“It’s important that the opposition not get the upper hand in defining a false narrative, and outside groups can help mitigate that from happening,” Elrod noted.
The White House itself has been preparing for months for the barrage of inquiries, adding both legal and public relations firepower to the White House Counsel’s Office, which is quarterbacking its effort, and encouraging federal agencies to take similar moves.
This summer, as it looked likely that Republicans would win one or both chambers of Congress, a small group of White House staffers began mapping out likely investigative angles, keeping close tabs on top Republican investigators, including letters of inquiry they sent to federal agencies.
“There are a lot of constraints on the administration when responding to oversight investigations — even ones that are completely bogus — but none of which apply to outside groups,” said Eric Schultz, a former Obama White House spokesperson who tangled daily with Republican congressional investigators ahead of President Barack Obama’s 2012 re-election bid.
For instance, government officials are prohibited by federal law from politicking. And the White House prefers to stay above the political fray, anyway. So, outside groups can provide political and PR support, especially in the absence of a Biden campaign, and can get down into the mud on especially sensitive issues like Hunter Biden.
Both sides insist they’re just after the truth. But the politics of the situation is undeniable and only thinly veiled.
Rep. Jim Jordan, R-Ohio, who is poised to use his likely chairmanship of the Judiciary Committee to aggressively investigate alleged politicization of the Justice Department, said last month at CPAC that the GOP majority would work to “frame up the 2024 race.”
“These are sham investigations. You can take Jordan’s word at it,” said Kyle Herrig, the founder and executive director of one of the new war rooms, the Congressional Integrity Project, which is relaunching to counter the investigations. “They don’t have an agenda that will help Americans. They have only one agenda and it’s a political agenda.”
The Congressional Integrity Project, which already has focus groups underway, promises to be as much about offense as defense. It plans to investigate the lawmakers investigating Biden, many of whom hail from the safe congressional districts and have never faced a tough election and the kind of opposition research and media scrutiny it brings.
“We’re going to leave no stone unturned. No one has done the investigative research we’ve done on these investigators. People in glass houses shouldn’t throw stones,” Herrig said. “We have a multimillion-dollar budget, and we’re staffing up with a team of researchers and communicators.”
Herrig’s group is working with another, Courage for America, which just launched. While the Congressional Integrity Project is focused on the investigations, Courage for America is focused on the legislation and personalities of the entire House GOP caucus.
Among other things, that means making firebrand freshman lawmakers famous. And it means highlighting and mobilizing opposition to GOP policies, such as a proposed national abortion ban and potential cuts to Social Security and Medicare.
“The American people need to be introduced and educated about the extremist agenda of this new House and also who these members are,” said Zac Petkanas, who was the Clinton campaign’s rapid response director and is now running a war room supported by Courage for America. “It’s a very dangerous new caucus and we’re going to be there every single day making sure people know about it.”
With a seven-figure budget and support from the Hub Project, a giant Democratic dark money network, the group plans a robust operation including polling, paid advertising and social media campaigns, along with traditional opposition research and communications.
The third group, Facts First, was started by David Brock, the former self-described “right-wing hit man” who then had a political conversion and used his fundraising talent to start a series of groups that have become key parts of Democratic infrastructure. Those include Media Matters and American Bridge, both of which he stepped away from to start Facts First.
Brock said an American Bridge donor has already pledged six-figures to support Facts First, which he said would likely have a $10 million budget over two years. Co-founders include former Republican Rep. David Jolly, a Trump critic who has since left the party, and longtime Democratic strategist Maria Cardona.
Unlike the other two groups, in order to maintain its independence, Facts First decided not to formally approach the White House for its blessing, though back-channel communications led it to believe the effort is welcome.
Brock, who also founded the pro-Clinton Correct the Record, said that experience taught him the new group needs to be more aggressive on social media and conduct more opinion research to understand how Americans view the controversy du jour.
“I do believe that, absent a vigorous operation, like the one we’re putting out, I think it makes it difficult for President Biden to be re-elected,” he said, before quickly adding that “it’s the Republicans that are really making this a political issue. We are doing this in response.”
Of the new groups, Brock’s appears to be working most closely with Hunter Biden and his legal team, led by entertainment lawyer Kevin Morris.
Hunter Biden’s relationship, struggles with drugs and alcohol, and business efforts to fund it all are sure to be a major focus of Republican inquiries. Republicans have long argued that Biden helped his son’s overseas business dealings — the claim was at the center of Trump’s first impeachment — but are still searching for evidence to prove it.
Brock recently traveled to Los Angeles to meet with Hunter Biden and said he came away reassured.
“I came out of that not nervous. I came out of that thinking that we’ll be able to show, over time, this is a Republican fantasy narrative driven by a lot of unreliable witnesses and spurious conspiracy theories,” he said. “To me, the main story here is of an addictive person who has mental health issues of the kind that are in most families in America. … I also think it’s the story of Joe Biden as an empathetic father.”
Alex Seitz-Wald is senior digital politics reporter for NBC News.
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