博客 / June 11, 2019

Behind Trump’s border wall: Political operatives, a controversial PR firm and an alleged fake news site

Global Witness exposes the link between a controversial right-leaning public affairs firm and President Trump’s reportedly favored company to build the southern border wall.

Summary

  • President Trump is boosting a particular firm, Fisher Sand & Gravel, whose owner is a donor to the Republican party, to build the border wall, which seems to go against the spirit of US federal procurement rules;
  • Fisher Sand & Gravel have a previously unreported link with Definers Public Affairs, a DC communications firm which employs controversial tactics such as setting up anonymous attack websites on behalf of their commercial and political clients;
  • Definers Public Affairs shares offices and staff with America Rising Corp and the America Rising PAC, Republican attack vehicles;
  • Definers Public Affairs are known for paid-for attacks on environmentalists and commercial opponents of their clients – which led to Facebook severing its contract with them;   
  • Individuals in Definers Public Affairs have recently launched a new company, Crier Media Group, active in ‘media monitoring’ in both the US and the UK.

United States President Donald Trump is accused of attempting to influence the procurement process for building the controversial border wall between Mexico and the US. According to the Washington Post, Trump and his son-in-law, Jared Kushner, have repeatedly pushed the option of awarding the contract to Fisher Sand & Gravel, a family-owned construction firm from North Dakota that has a checkered past. 

WaPo_Fisher_headline_cropped.png

Source: Washington Post

The story of how Fisher Sand & Gravel Co, and its subsidiary, Fisher Industries, grabbed the President’s attention is partly a very modern one of publicity stunts and media frenzies, and partly an old tale of money and politics. Recent reporting has revealed Fisher Sand & Gravel’s past environmental violations and legal problems – although the company points out that these matters were resolved years ago.

Global Witness exposes a previously unreported link between Fisher Sand & Gravel and Definers Public Affairs, a controversial communications firm linked to Republican political operatives. From alleged smear campaigns to attack ads, Definers has been accused of devious and questionable methods to support their clients and negatively influence public opinion.

The best way to reach the President

Tommy Fisher, the CEO of Fisher Industries, has repeatedly appeared on Fox News, trumpeting his plans for a wall that he claims is faster and cheaper to build than rival designs by other companies. When interviewed by the Washington Post for his thoughts on why Trump supports the Fisher bid, the Republican Senator for North Dakota, Kevin Cramer, said of Tommy Fisher “He’s been very aggressive on TV,” and then asked “You know who else watches Fox News?”

It may come as no surprise that both Tommy Fisher and his wife donated money to Senator Cramer’s Senate election campaign. The Senator has also boosted Fisher Industries on social media.  CNN reported that:

“According to an administration official familiar with the situation, Cramer sent information about Fisher to the President's son-in-law and White House adviser Jared Kushner, who then passed it along to the Army Corps of Engineers for their consideration. The source tells CNN that Kushner was not familiar with the company prior to getting information about them from Cramer.”

Senator Cramer denied in his interview with the Washington Post that the donation has influenced his actions, stating that his support had occurred before any donation and was because Tommy Fisher is “a constituent of mine”. 

Other publicity grabbing moves have included Fisher Sand & Gravel building part of the border wall on private land, crowdfunded by a GoFundMe campaign for We Build The Wall, a non-profit organization that features well-known conservative personalities like Steve Bannon and Erik Prince on its advisory board.  

Kyle Ehmke Tweet

Souce: Twitter, @kyleehmke

Tommy Fisher seems a capable self-publicist.  But it is possible that Fishers also worked with a controversial communications firm based in Washington, D.C., Definers Public Affairs to grab the President’s attention.

The link between the two was spotted by Kyle Ehmke, a ‘threat intelligence researcher’ with ThreatConnect, a cybersecurity company.

When an individual or company sets up or is involved with several different websites, they sometimes use a common Google analytics account to monitor web traffic of the various sites.  Each Google analytics account has a unique ID number which can be found in the coding of the website.

In this case, the person who set up and monitors web traffic at Definers Public Affairs also appears to have set up the website analytics for Fishers Sand & Gravel. Google analytics codes are unique – there cannot be two separate Google accounts that use the same code – nor can codes be added to a website by an outsider with no access to the source code of the website.  

Therefore, since both sites use the same analytics code, it’s evident that, at a minimum, both the website analytics for the Definers’ website and the Fishers Sand & Gravel website were set up by the same person.

It is also possible that the relationship between the two companies went further than just website monitoring. As we will see below, the same tracking code was used for numerous other websites set up on behalf of Definers clients. These included an anonymous website attacking Qatar and another supporting the point of view of the United Arab Emirates (UAE). 

Trump_Fisher_meeting.png

Source: Twitter, @SenKevinCramer

Foreign Agent Registration Act disclosures reveal that Definers staff members provided strategic communications guidance to the UAE, including one-on-one interactions with American news media. It is likely that the Qatar-related websites were part of the same package. While it is probable that Definers played some role in the new Fisher website, it is also possible that Definers provided a wider set of services to Fisher Sand & Gravel also.

Global Witness repeatedly approached both Fishers Sand & Gravel and its media representatives and Definers Public Affairs for comment on the extent of any relationship but did not receive a reply from either firm.

Fisher Industries already had an existing website at www.fisherind.com, but a new, professional looking website – specifically focused on the border wall (www.fishersandandgravel.com) was registered on January 4, 2018, around the same time that a new Twitter account was set up. Events then moved quickly. A new Facebook account was set up on January 5, the same day that Tommy Fisher was interviewed on Fox and Friends, a Fox News program known to be watched by President Trump.

By March 13, 2018 Tommy Fisher had met President Trump in person. 

The controversy surrounding Definers Public Affairs

Definers Public Affairs is best known for having its contract cancelled by Facebook in late 2018 after revelations in the New York Times about its aggressive tactics.

The communications firm is closely related to America Rising Corp, a Republican opposition research and attack firm which provides services to political clients, which has also set up America Rising PAC. America Rising PAC happily quotes a description of itself as “The rabid pit bull of the Republican Party.” Operatives associated with the groups follow Democratic Presidential candidates, filming all their public appearances. They also conduct background research on opponents. For example, their specialist lawyer, Allan Blutstein, submitted freedom of information (FOIA) requests for the military and NASA discharge papers for Mark Kelly, a former astronaut and potential candidate in the 2020 Arizona Senate elections.

Both Definers and America Rising are closely linked to NTK (Need to Know) Network, which claims to be a news website “without the liberal bias”.

All three entities share staff and office space in Arlington, Virginia. Joe Pounder, Chief Executive of America Rising Corp, also describes himself as a co-founder of Definers Corp, and NTK Network lists him as their Editor-in-Chief; while Allan Blutstein has submitted FOIA requests for Definers, America Rising, America Rising Squared, and the NTK Network.

Newly filed corporate documents in the United Kingdom show that Definers staff, including the CEO Joe Pounder, and the Definers’ Chief Financial Officer, have set up a new entity – Crier Media Group - in both the UK and the US. Similar to Definers, Crier Media provides media monitoring services. (Definers have also set up UK Policy Group in the UK - claiming it was “bringing campaign-style research to corporate clients”.)  According to LinkedIn records several Definers and UK Policy Group staff moved simultaneously to Crier Media Group.  

So, what’s the problem?

First, their working methods raise eyebrows, particularly in an era when Americans and others must wade through “fake news” infiltrating their social media feeds and news consumption on a daily basis. Starting with revelations of the Internet Research Agency, a Kremlin-affiliated troll farm and fake news network, sowing discord and undermining faith in American democratic institutions in the 2016 elections, Americans, big tech, and US officials are now constantly battling the influx of misinformation campaigns.

NTK_Network_Apple.png

Source: Facebook, Need To Know Network

  • NTK Network purports to be a conservative news website. However, one former employee interviewed by NBC News described NTK as an “in-house fake news shop”.  One pitch given to a potential client and leaked to the New York Times described NTK News as “a Digital Platform Echo Chamber.” 
  • NTK also has articles written by America Rising and Definers staff, according a former employee interviewed by the New York Times. Articles attacking the commercial rivals of Definers’ clients appear on the NTK website without any declarations of potential conflicts of interest. For example, NTK News published dozens of articles attacking Apple, without declaring that a closely related party, Definers, reportedly had a contract with chipmaker Qualcomm, with whom Apple was engaged in a legal battle.
  • NTK also ran an extensive series of adverts on Facebook, without declaring whether commercial clients were behind them. This demonstrates a loophole in Facebook’s advert disclosure program, whereby intermediaries can potentially declare themselves, and not their end clients, as the funder of the advertisement.
  • Common Google analytics tracking codes suggest that Definers are linked to a series of astro-turf websites for their clients, sometimes without declaring who had set them up or was funding them. In one example, common Google analytics codes suggest that Definers had set up www.qatarcrisisnews.com and www.partnershipforpeace.org. The funder was later identified by K. Louise Neufeld, when Joe Pounder and other Definers staff registered as Foreign Agents to represent the United Arab Emirates, focusing in particular on “issues relating to client's termination of relations with Qatar and accuracy and transparency of Qatar government-owned media.”
  • In other examples, environmental causes have been attacked by astro-turf websites, linked to Definers Public Affairs by common Google analytics codes. The They Cap You Pay website attacked proposed cap and trade (climate change-related) legislation in Oregon.  Meanwhile, the Power the Future website – which again shares the same tracking code and was also registered using a Definers email address  – claims that “We are the voice of energy workers pushing back on radical green groups and the ideologues who fund them.” Power the Future is led by Daniel Turner, who hasn’t worked in the energy industry, but rather was a former Director of Strategic Communications at the Koch Institute.

The second problem is that the shift from political mud-slinging to widely reported attacks on commercial targets and environmentalists raises questions about both propriety and the transparency of funding of those seeking to shape the public debate.

Draft_Tim_Cook.jpg

Source: DraftTimCook.org

  • The aggressive political methods of the self-declared ‘rabid pit bulls’ of America Rising PAC are applied not only to declared candidates for public office. America Rising Squared, a not-for-profit entity, also apparently conducts media monitoring and attacks liberal and environmental causes. They followed Bill McKibben, a prominent environmentalist, for months, filming his every move. They aim to “hold the Environmentalist Left accountable by highlighting their hypocrisy and exposing their extreme rhetoric and agenda.” 
  • During the attacks on Apple, which featured frequently on NTK network in late 2017, a website appeared suggesting that Apple’s CEO Tim Cook should be drafted as a Presidential candidate for 2020.  The website gave no clue as to who was behind the initiative. This was covered, albeit somewhat skeptically, in the Free Beacon, a conservative leaning news outlet. Kyle Ehmke, of the ThreatConnect cybersecurity firm, spotted that the website shared the same Google analytics code as that for Definers Public Affairs. Reporters guess that the purpose is to make Tim Cook appear like a potential rival to President Trump and thus, presumably, lessen Apple’s political influence with the White House. If true, this can only be described as a tactic which is both inspired – but also devious. As mentioned previously, Definers reportedly had a contract with chipmaker Qualcomm, a competitor of Apple with whom they were also engaged in a legal battle.  There is no suggestion that Qualcomm knew of such methods being used on their behalf.
  • Definers also gained an apparent no-bid contract with the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) to provide media monitoring – or ‘news analysis’ – service. This came during a period of intense controversy after Scott Pruitt, who still describes himself as “a leading advocate against the EPA’s activist agenda”, was appointed by President Trump as EPA Administrator. However, Allan Blutstein, the Definers Public Affair’s FOIA specialist, seems to have gone further than ‘news analysis’.  He began submitting FOIA requests about EPA employees suspected of being critical of Scott Pruitt and President Trump, requesting copies of emails which mentioned Pruitt or Trump. These FOIA requests were denounced by EPA staff as intimidation.  When interviewed by the New York Times, Mr Blutstein said that the purpose of the FOIA requests were simply to find out if any of the EPA employees had used agency email inappropriately, or had violated agency rules in some other way.

When criticized in the past in relation to their work for Facebook, Definers have denied being partisan, and stated that they only do communications not lobbying.  They also clarified that the nature of work for commercial clients is usually media monitoring services and that their opposition research forms a small part of work. Definers also state that, in any case, opposition research for commercial clients is entirely legitimate, usually drawing from public records. They vehemently deny smearing commercial opponents of their clients, and specifically say that it is wrong to suggest that NTK Network is used to attack commercial opponents.

Opacity

As both Definers and Fisher Sand & Gravel failed to respond to repeated requests to comment, it is impossible to determine the precise extent of their relationship. It could be that that they have an extensive relationship; including DC based communication and media booking services to get Tommy Fisher on conservative broadcast outlets like Fox and Friends.  Or it could be that they have a minimal relationship – perhaps even just having had a shared Google analytics tracking account set up for them by a third party.

NTK_wall_ad_cropped.png

Source: Facebook: Need To Know Network

This opacity, however, is a problem. Take this Facebook advert ran by NTK Network in April 2019. Its main message chimes perfectly with the Fisher Sand & Gravel messaging that its proposed wall design is quicker and cheaper than its rivals.  However, we don’t know whether it was run by NTK Network on behalf of a commercial client, or had nothing to do with Fisher and simply tapped into current conservative media priorities in order to drive traffic into its own website.  The distinction is important if we’re to untangle the role of money in shaping the public sphere. 

The activities of Definers and associated entities illustrate a wider challenge. The current blend of money, politics, ideology, the fragmentation of public discourse by social media, and the deliberate shaping of national debates through alleged fakes or shills is toxic to democracy. We do not pretend to know all of the answers, but a first step is greater transparency over who is paying who to publish what. 


Disclosure:

Definers Public Affairs also faced criticism over an attempt to discredit campaigners asking for Facebook reforms by linking these campaigners to George Soros. A Definers consultant said that “Definers shared a narrow document about an anti-Facebook group's funding. It was entirely factual...” and clarified the nature of the work carried out for Facebook. Global Witness is an independent, non-partisan organization that works to expose corruption to protect human rights and the environment. No donor —large or small— has editorial control over our work or the choices we make regarding the subjects of our investigations or campaigns. George Soros does not fund Global Witness directly. Global Witness receives funding from the Open Society Foundation for our general funds. 

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