The Democratic National Committee worked extensively behind the scenes with the American Federation of Teachers to coordinate their public relations efforts against Donald Trump, focusing particularly on trying to tie the Republican presidential candidate to the issue of school bullying, arguing that his example was inspiring ordinary students to start bullying each other, leaked emails show.
The claim relating to Trump's supposed schoolyard influence was based on a survey by the nonprofit Southern Poverty Law Center released in April that even the authors conceded was "not scientific." Operatives for the DNC and teachers union nevertheless worked extensively together to link Trump to the issue in the public's mind, according to internal DNC communications released Friday by WikiLeaks.
In one email exchange, DNC operative TJ Helmstetter suggested that they not use the label "Dangerous Donald" when promoting the bullying stories. "We got a lot of hell on reporter Twitter yesterday for using Dangerous Donald repeatedly," Helmstetter said.
Luis Miranda, another DNC operative, responded, "Dangerous Donald is good. Let them complain ... [W]e shouldn't blink because a couple reporters get snarky." In a follow-up, he added: "I am glad they are repeating it."
The emails also show the close relationship between the DNC and the 1.3 million-member AFT, the nation's second-largest teachers union. The labor group's credibility as a teacher's organization was a key part of the DNC's effort to push the bullying claim. AFT was one of the first unions to endorse Democratic presidential candidate Hillary Clinton, and union President Randi Weingarten is a personal friend of Clinton's.
The messages show that the DNC was providing the teachers union with research that the union would then present as its own. In a May 5 exchange, AFT operative John Ost told Miranda, "At request of DNC, [Randi Weingarten] is doing some press today re: Trump. We've been working with [Helmstetter]. Question: who can we connect with to get more background/research re: Trump? We want to shift gears and spend more time educating our members."
Later that day, Jost told Miranda to send him, "Essentially anything you have — we have our exec council in next week and we want to give them info — labor, education, healthcare (we are the 2nd largest nurses Union), etc — we'd repurpose into [union] branded mailers/flyers."
"Sounds good, we'll dig in and send more your way," Miranda replied. Neither Jost nor Miranda responded to inquiries from the Washington Examiner.
The DNC's effort to link Trump to bullying apparently began in April. "Today: pitching Trump teacher protests and bullying stories to family media," said DNC spokeswoman Jenna Price in an April 22 staff-wide email.
That was about a week after the Southern Poverty Law Center published a study called, "The Trump Effect: The Impact of the Presidential Campaign on Our Nation's Schools." It warned that that the election was producing "an alarming level of fear and anxiety among children of color and inflaming racial and ethnic tensions in the classroom. Many students worry about being deported." It said that Trump was the cause most frequently cited.
The center is a nonprofit group that focuses on tracking extremist and hate groups. It is best known it for its work opposing the Ku Klux Klan and neo-Nazi groups. It has an expansive definition of "extremism," however. It included the non-violent, Christian conservative group the Family Research Council on its national "hate map" with KKK-type groups because the council opposes gay rights. Spokeswoman Kirsten Bokenkamp said the council is labeled a hate group because of "their stance and rhetoric attacks and maligns an entire class of people."
The center's bullying study was based on people who responded to an online survey it sent to educators who subscribe to its Teaching Tolerance newsletter. The report itself says, "Our survey of approximately 2,000 K-12 teachers was not scientific. Our email subscribers and those who visit our website are not a random sample of teachers nationally, and those who chose to respond to our survey are likely to be those who are most concerned about the impact of the presidential campaign on their students and schools."
Karlyn Bowman, polling expert for the right-leaning American Enterprise Institute, said such methods are not statistically sound and cannot be read as proof of any trend. "It doesn't appear to be random or representative. It was email responses to a survey of people with an interest in the work of Teaching Tolerance. It doesn't tell us about the views of the population as a whole or even of educators as a whole," she said.
That didn't prevent the center's report from being reported that way. The Huffington Post ran a story in April based on it titled, "'The Trump Effect': Hatred, Fear and Bullying on the Rise in Schools," which stated, "More than one-third of the teachers said they've noticed a rise in anti-immigrant and anti-Muslim sentiment among their students as well." It did not note the report's own statement that it wasn't scientific.
The following month the DNC and teachers union made a concerted effort to promote the connection. The DNC hosted a call for reporters on May 5. During the call, Weingarten told reporters, "What we've seen with Donald Trump is that there is now a new phenomenon in schools called the 'Trump Effect.' It will take decades to overcome the way Donald Trump speaks and promotes violence, xenophobia and racism. This is creating bullying environments in schools across the country."
The call prompted stories in several news outlets such as the Hill and the Daily Caller. Weingarten repeated the accusation in an op-ed written for the trade journal EdWeek. Democratic National Committee Chairwoman Debbie Wasserman Schultz made the same accusation in at least three separate speeches the same week, prompting further media coverage.
Wasserman Schultz, however, said it wasn't just one study that had connected Trump to bullying. "Recent reports found that bullying at schools is on the rise as a result of his hateful rhetoric. He's making our communities less safe and he hasn't even gotten into office," she said in a May speech at the Democratic Executive Committee. She repeated the claim in other speeches, but did not name the other sources.
"I'm really glad that we brought attention to this, nice job team," Miranda said in a email to fellow staffers following the May 5 press conference.
On May 6, the DNC put out a compilation of news clips to send out to reporters, but took care to edit out sections that would suggest that AFT was not a neutral source. "Looks great! I added a few words to the topper and took out one line about AFT supporting Clinton and replaced it with (...), so let me know if you have issues with that," DNC operative Jeremy Brinster told Miranda.
"Good edits," Miranda replied.
Update: This article has been updated to reflect the Southern Poverty Law Center's stance on the Family Research Council.