This man is working behind the scenes to resist job growth, world peace, record breaking economic growth, and the lowest unemployment in decades for people of color.
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His name is John Burton, a former Obama campaign opposition researcher, former banker at J.P. Morgan, and former assistant to disgraced tax cheat Timothy Geithner.
According to an article in Bloomberg News, Burton is raking in cash from undisclosed donors for his 501(c)4 “non profit” called Citizen Strong, where he relies on army of 16,000 “amateur sleuths” to dig up dirt on Republican candidates across the country, in hopes of taking back the House.
With a headline of “A Former Obama Operative Built a New Anti-Republican Attack Machine” and sub headline of “John Burton hopes an army of dirt diggers can deliver an October surprise for Democrats,” Bloomberg Business reports:
Before he was a banker, Burton, 38, was a practitioner of the dark art of opposition research, or “oppo”—digging up and surreptitiously deploying damaging information about politicians. As it did for so many people, Donald Trump’s election turned Burton’s life upside down. He quit his job, joined a Resistance group, and devoted himself to returning his country to the path he’d believed it was on when he worked for Barack Obama’s campaign a decade ago.
Some Resisters march or knock on doors; others raise money or run for office. Burton felt his gifts lay elsewhere: namely, in tearing down political opponents. Over the past year, backed by mysterious donors, he’s organized what may be the most audacious grass-roots project in the age of Trump. Burton has amassed an army of 16,000 amateur sleuths who, with professional guidance, have spent months ferreting out damaging material on scores of vulnerable Republicans in Congress and state legislatures. Now he’s ready to unleash it just in time for the midterms. As he told me, “We’re going to do with real information and real Americans what the Russians tried to do with fake information and fake Americans.”
Oppo works best when its target is unaware, so Burton’s project, dubbed Citizen Strong, has operated by stealth, waiting until just now to publicly declare its existence as a 501(c)4 “dark money” group with three affiliated political action committees. Even this step doesn’t reveal much. Dark money donors can give unlimited sums anonymously, and Burton won’t identify his benefactors or even the three operatives he’s hired to help run the group.
Examining these windfalls for potential fraud or conflict of interest would usually require a professional investigator such as Christopher Steele, the ex-MI6 agent who produced the infamous dossier on Trump. Most campaigns can’t afford that. But the main requirements for being a successful oppo researcher—time, patience, and dogged determination—were qualities Burton saw in abundance among his Resistance compatriots. Many were skilled professionals whose expertise he thought he could weaponize for politics if they were willing to spend their free time doing things like digging through social media accounts and newspaper clippings or hunting down property records and arrest filings at the local courthouse. When he put out a call for help on Rohrabacher, he soon had at his disposal a forensic accountant, a team of corporate lawyers, and a fluent Russian speaker—Tanya, the New York consultant. “As far as I’m concerned, it’s all hands on deck,” she says. “If someone has a special ability, they should be using it to help take back the House.” (She and other volunteers I spoke to for this story asked that their full names not be used to protect their identities and prevent problems at work.)
Burton has a trove of anti-Republican material. The art of oppo lies in culling and distributing that kind of information to tell a particular story—a negative story—that will tarnish the incumbent and weaken his or her support. Sometimes researchers will quietly slip it to reporters, hoping it will yield a story and gain the imprimatur of a nonpartisan news outlet. Other times, oppo can be the basis of an ad campaign or used to build a website voters and the media can scrutinize—a bit like WikiLeaks. (Burton says none of his material is obtained through hacking or other illegal means.) With the midterms looming, he’s begun disseminating his “citizen oppo” in three Senate races, 22 House races, and 133 state legislative races across 13 states. He’s hoping these last-minute attacks will help push many of these races into the Democratic column, flipping control of the House—and possibly even the Senate—as well as state legislatures that will play a critical role in redrawing congressional lines in 2020, a process that will shape national politics for the next decade.
As a member of Obama’s oppo team, Burton was pitted against Hillary Clinton and then John McCain, which forced him to master arcane issues of local concern, from hog lots to the Colorado River Compact. It also taught him the art of sowing discord to weaken an opponent. According to Burton, the campaign purposely leaked stories critical of certain McCain staffers, knowing the staffers would likely blame internal rivals for the attacks. His most memorable assignment was combing property records to determine how many homes McCain owned. When the question arose in an interview, McCain couldn’t come up with the correct answer—eight—and looked like an out-of-touch plutocrat rather than a maverick war hero.
After the election, Burton joined Obama’s Treasury Department and spent a stressful year and a half fighting the financial crisis. “That’s when I lost my hair,” he says. In 2010 he left politics, got a degree at the Stanford Graduate School of Business, and landed an investment banking job at JPMorgan Chase & Co. in San Francisco, working with clients such as Google and Twitter Inc. So certain was he that his future lay in finance that he passed up working on Obama’s reelection and stayed in California. His trip to New York in November 2016 was meant to be part reunion, part celebration of Clinton’s victory.
The article continues with a post-Trump victory chronicle:
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Burton was racked with guilt that he hadn’t done his part to stop Trump. This was somewhat alleviated when Moser recruited him for an idea she’d had about creating a productive outlet for the hundreds of aggrieved friends and acquaintances who wanted to act but didn’t know how. By mid-December, Moser had started a group called Daily Action to give Resistance members a single, focused task, delivered via text each morning—calling a key senator to object to a nominee, say, or marshaling supporters at airports to protest Trump’s travel ban. She leaned on Burton to help figure out what those tasks should be. “John is more deeply knowledgeable about politics and its mechanisms than anyone I’ve ever known,” she says.
Moser and Burton expected a few hundred people to sign up but were hit with a torrent. On Day 1, Daily Action got 3,000 volunteers. By Inauguration Day, the number reached 40,000. The Women’s March pushed it past 100,000, as activists discovered, in Moser’s phrase, how to “use your phone to fight Trump.”
He took control of Daily Action and led it until September 2017, by which point joining forces with a larger institution made sense. MoveOn.org acquired the group, and Burton suddenly found himself with free time. Having advised startups as a banker, he now sought to launch one himself in politics. Resistance volunteers were already being deployed in daily activism, voter registration, and fundraising, but nobody had tried to harness that energy for opposition research. Doing so at a mass scale posed enormous logistical challenges, and few political professionals imagined that amateurs could do the work. “If I were just coming off a campaign or the Hill, I’d underestimate what volunteers are capable of doing,” Burton says. “After Daily Action, I knew what was possible.”
Choosing whom to go after was the next challenge. Burton knew Democrats in clear toss-up races would have sufficient resources to conduct their own research. So Citizen Strong concentrated on House races the Cook Political Report, a nonpartisan handicapper, rated “lean Republican,” where Democrats were likely to be new, underfunded, and unfamiliar with the darker side of politics. The group focused especially on state legislative contests in Michigan, Minnesota, Ohio, Wisconsin, and other states where the chambers are closely divided and the politicians unaccustomed to sophisticated attacks.
Citizen Strong’s liberal activists instinctively want to attack Republicans on gun control, abortion, or other social issues. But given the political geography of the group’s Republican targets, such attacks would likely hurt their cause. So their professional guides steered them toward a more constructive vector. Burton and his partners devised a “Midas Index” of Republicans, including Representatives Bruce Poliquin of Maine and Erik Paulsen of Minnesota, who’d taken more than $1 million in PAC money from Wall Street or Big Pharma. Alleging greed or complicity in the opioid crisis, as Burton intends to do, is more apt to engender anger in swing voters than the thorny cultural issues many Resisters would prefer.
Citizen Strong’s volunteer army has come together at a propitious moment. Not only has the Trump-fueled tumult of the past two years made hundreds of Republican incumbents vulnerable, but the past decade has seen an explosion of information sources that anybody can mine. “There’s so much just sitting out there that’s been made available through sunshine laws, through states posting personal financial disclosures and putting lobbyist disclosures online, and through social media,” Burton says. “There’s just a ton of content, far more than there was when I was starting out 10 years ago.”
Burton laughs as he shares more highlights of what his researchers turned up, tidbits he’s not yet willing to put on the record. Sometimes, it’s best to spring the trap at the last moment. “This is what gets found when you have an army who can read every line of every document,” he says.
After Nov. 6, we’ll know if that’s enough to hand political power back to the Democrats.
Burton is a former J.P. Morgan banker yet somehow he is being portrayed as a man of the people.
Having previously been employed by the Obama campaign and the leftist front group “Center For American Progress,” Burton has inroads to all of the leftist megadonors, such as George Soros, Bill Gates, Tom Steyer, Win McCormack, Michael Bloomberg, and who knows who else.
Burton is likely raking in gobs of cash for his efforts, while his army of 16,000 are considered to be amateur volunteers. Are these 16,000 aware that they are being used to enrich guys like Burton? Perhaps they should unionize, demand $25/hour, full benefits, and a pension package. The aforementioned billionaires can afford it.
That’s right, while many of the left scream and yell at the concept of “dark money” for conservative causes, they themselves are the beneficiaries of such.
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Interestingly enough, Guidestar, the website that provides data about registered non profits, has no listing for anything called “Citizen Strong.”
Despite massive funding and his 16,000 dupees, it looks as though the most they’ve been able to come up with are vague sex abuse allegations from discredited “victims” whose stories are laden with inconsistencies that don’t add up.
Are the billionaire leftist megadonors sure they want to continue throwing money at this?
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It sure would be a shame if a bunch of people from 4chan reached out to Burton to offer “help,” only to feed him disinformation, false leads, fake stories, and ultimately setting him up for defamation lawsuits and egg on his face. After all, folks like Burton are so desperate for any nugget of information that could be politically weaponized, they could very well be likely to run fake stories if it means winning at any cost. You’d only have to hit the “Join Us” button on the Citizen Strong website.