A data firm backed by some of Donald Trump’s closest allies is now facing scrutiny as part of an investigation into possible collusion between the president’s team and Russian operatives, The Daily Beast has learned.
The House Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence (HPSCI) is looking at Cambridge Analytica’s work for President Donald Trump’s campaign as part of its investigation into Russian efforts to meddle in the 2016 race, according to sources familiar with the probe.
The company is in the process of turning over documents to HPSCI, according to a source familiar with the committee’s work. Another source close to the investigation said that the probe’s focus on Cambridge Analytica is “fruitful.”
Steve Bannon, the former White House chief strategist, had holdings in Cambridge Analytica worth between $1 million and $5 million as recently as April of this year, Bloomberg reported. Bannon, now back as the chairman of the pro-Trump media outlet Breitbart, hasn’t been publicly mentioned as a potential witness for or target of Russia investigators. He previously sat on the board of Cambridge Analytica.
Another key Cambridge Analytica investor is Robert Mercer, the reclusive hedge fund billionaire who also generously backed Trump’s presidential campaign. Mercer and his daughter Rebekah introduced several top officials to Trump’s campaign, including Kellyanne Conway and Bannon. The Mercers also are partial owners of Breitbart—among their many, many investment in far-right media outlets, think tanks, and political campaigns.
A recent Vanity Fair piece highlighted speculation among Washington Democrats that the Trump campaign’s data operation could point to collusion between Trump and Russia.
Cambridge purports to go beyond the typical voter targeting—relying on online clues like Facebook Likes to give a hint at a user’s political leanings and construct a picture of a voter’s mental state. The “psychographic” picture Cambridge ostensibly provides to a campaign is the ability to tailor a specific message based on personality type – angry, fearful, optimistic and so forth – rather than simply aiming ads at voters from likely convivial candidates.
Those purported capabilities have generated some speculation that there was a Russian link to the outfit, as Vanity Fair detailed. The Kremlin-orchestrated propaganda efforts on Facebook have evinced a level of sophistication surprising for a foreign entity, prompting speculation that Russians may have received some kind of targeting help. Such targeting reached voters in states where Clinton enjoyed a traditional advantage but went for Trump, including Michigan and Wisconsin, CNN reported.
As The Daily Beast and others have reported, Russian propaganda on Facebook and other social-media platforms passed itself off as authentic American voices; targeting refugees, posing as an American Muslim group and backing an Atlanta-based duo supporting Black Lives Matter. Depending on which cohort was being targeted, the efforts encouraged pro-Trump voters to intensify political participation, black voters to abandon Hillary Clinton for Trump, and Muslim voters to consider Clinton an Islamophobe.
The congressional inquiry is not the only one Cambridge Analytica is facing. The UK Information Commissioner, Britain’s privacy watchdog, in March began examining the firm’s role in the successful 2016 push to persuade British voters to “Brexit” the European Union. But Cambridge has said it never actually advised the Leave.eu campaign beyond initial discussions, despite Leave.eu’s own statements that the firm “will be helping us map the British electorate and what they believe in, enabling us to better engage with voters.”
In May, the Guardian’s Sunday Observer reported that Cambridge Analytica and its UK affiliate SCL––which owns 10 percent of Cambridge Analytica to Mercer’s 90 percent––have worked in Russia, Lithuania, Latvia, Ukraine, Iran and Moldova.
“Multiple Cambridge Analytica sources have revealed other links to Russia, including trips to the country, meetings with executives from Russian state-owned companies, and references by SCL employees to working for Russian entities,” the Observer reported.
A Cambridge spokesperson confirmed to The Daily Beast that the company is cooperating with the House probe.
“As one of the companies that played a prominent role in the election campaign, Cambridge Analytica has been asked by the House Intelligence Committee to provide it with information that might help its investigation. We believe that other organizations that worked on the campaign have been asked to do the same,” the spokesperson said in a statement. “As you know, CA is not under investigation, and there is no suggestion of any wrongdoing by the company.”
Jared Kushner, the president’s son-in-law and a top White House advisor, played a role in Cambridge Analytica’s work. A cover story in Forbes published shortly after the election noted that “Kushner’s crew” brought on the firm “to map voter universes and identify which parts of the Trump platform mattered most...”
Kushner’s attorney declined to comment. A spokesperson for Bannon did not immediately return a request for comment for this piece.
The admiration for Cambridge was hardly universal, however. “I just don't think it works,” Trump campaign digital director Brad Parscale told 60 Minutes for its October 8 broadcast.
Numerous sources familiar with the company downplayed its effectiveness to The Daily Beast. One longtime Republican data operative put it this way: “People think they’re dealing with evil masterminds, when they’re really just Keystone Cops.”
The firm developed a bad-boy reputation in the early months of the 2016 campaign season, buoyed by its aggressive PR operation. One of the early pieces on it, published by Politico on July 7, 2015, reported the firm is connected to SCL Group, a company that provided “military disinformation campaigns,” among other services. And Cambridge Analytica’s claim to target ads by using “psychographic profiles” generated significant buzz—and significant pushback to that buzz.
A former Trump campaign staffer familiar with Cambridge Analytica’s work on the campaign downplayed its role.
“The news on Cambridge Analytica is not whether they colluded with the Russians or not,” the former staffer told The Daily Beast. “It’s how little work they did for the Trump campaign and the fact that they did zero psychographic data work.”
Another longtime Republican operative said it was unlikely the company would have had anything valuable to offer Russians.
“What were they going to do, send them a voter file?” the operative said. “Shit, you think the Russians can’t get a hold of a voter file if they want?”
The House inquiry has much on its plate before next week’s recess. Members of the panel have been asked to block out four hours for interviews on Friday, though it is unclear if those interviews concern Cambridge Analytica. One invited witness, The Daily Beast has learned, is Samantha Power, the United Nations ambassador under Barack Obama.
UPDATE 3:55 PM: This story has been updated to include Cambridge Analytica's confirmation that it is providing documents to the House probe.