Republican National Committee pays tiny, unknown intelligence firm for 2020 opposition research on Democrats

Key Points
  • The Republican National Committee pays a mysterious company called the Outliers Group $10,000 for 2020 opposition research.
  • The small firm is run by an Army veteran who is also managing director of intelligence gathering firm Clerestory Research.
  • Leaders of President Donald Trump's 2020 campaign tell CNBC they haven't heard of the company.
US President Donald Trump speaks at the Republican National Committee winter meeting at the Trump International Hotel in Washington, DC on February 1, 2018.
Mandel Ngan | AFP | Getty Images

The Republican National Committee has hired a tiny, unknown company, which is run by an Army veteran who leads a private intelligence firm, to dig up opposition research on Democrats for the 2020 campaign.

The company, called the Outliers Group, received $10,000 from the RNC in March for research and consulting services, according to the RNC's latest Federal Election Commission filing. It marks the first time Outliers has been paid by any political entity since its founding, FEC records show.

Outliers is run by Rob Berra, a former U.S. Army infantry officer and managing director of Clerestory Research, which also isn't known as a go-to firm for the GOP.

"This was for Democrat oppo research services. Searching for and analyzing public records," Mike Reed, the RNC's deputy chief of staff of communications, told CNBC in an email describing Outliers' role. "We partner with a variety of firms to assist us with this type of work — as we are doing research on dozens of Democrat candidates in preparation for 2020."

Outliers is such an unknown entity that leaders of President Donald Trump's campaign hadn't heard of it. "Not heard of either" Outliers or Clerestory, a senior Trump campaign advisor told CNBC.

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Veteran Republican strategists haven't heard of Outliers, either. "Never heard of them," said Cam Savage, a Republican consultant who founded GOP advisory firm Limestone Strategies.

Berra's LinkedIn page identifies him as the director of Outliers and as Clerestory's managing director.

On its own LinkedIn page, Clerestory describes itself as a company that delivers "open source intelligence that empowers clients to make superior tactical and strategic decisions." Opposition research firms often dive deep into open source intelligence, which is data publicly available but often hidden in the archives of the internet, and deliver it to their clients.

Reed, the RNC spokesman, declined to discuss Berra's research targets or the information he gathered for the $10,000 payment. Emailed requests for comment from Clerestory Research were not returned.

Outliers is based in Arlington, Virginia, business records show, while Clerestory is located less than a block away from the White House. The RNC appears to be Outliers' sole client.

While March marked Outliers' first payment from the RNC, the committee has a history of turning to similarly small limited liability companies for consulting work.

In March, the RNC paid Excelsior Strategies out of Arlington $30,000 for management consulting. The same firm received an equal amount in February. The RNC paid St. James Strategies $20,000 last month and a combined $40,000 between January and February.

The RNC also paid opposition research juggernaut America Rising Corporation $20,000 in March and just over $27,000 in February.

Republican strategists said the RNC's hiring of Outliers could be a sign that the party is turning to a wide range of groups for help in collecting as much dirt as possible well before the Democratic Party chooses its presidential nominee.

"Perhaps they have a specific strength in an area of interest, perhaps the RNC is looking to try something different from their traditional vendors to see what kind of product they might receive," Christian Ferry, former deputy campaign manager for John McCain's 2008 presidential campaign, told CNBC.

He also hinted at another potential reason for why the RNC might be branching out.

"America Rising is not exactly full of Trump loyalists," Ferry said.

— Correction: This story has been updated to reflect the correct spelling of Christian Ferry's name.