This is the first of a series of articles I wrote in October dismantling the antics of James O'Keefe and his Project Veritas con-artists as they tried to manipulate the presidential election in its final days. In my relatively brief time here at Writer Beat, many have credulously parroted O'Keefe's narratives from these videos but those narratives are as unsupportable as O'Keefe's pretense of being a "journalist":
Right-wing con-artist James O'Keefe has struck again, releasing a pair of videos that allege wrongdoing by Democrats and the Clinton campaign. At Wednesday's presidential debate, the allegations were raised, in a significantly distorted form, by Republican candidate Donald Trump and are getting much play in right-wing media, with the usual accompanying persecution narrative about the mainstream press ignoring the "story." Despite this standard-issue hue and cry, it isn't really clear there's much of a story here.
O'Keefe has made a career out of peddling to credulous rightists one politically motivated fraud after another. Media Matters, last week, offered a sort of greatest hits package of his past antics. O'Keefe calls his org "Project Veritas," which reminds the wary that it's always a wise move to keep a good stock of irony jokes close at hand when dealing with anything having to do with O'Keefe. The standard M.O. of O'Keefe and his operatives is to adopt various disguises and try to get people associated with liberal or Democratic causes to say and do politically damaging things on hidden cameras. O'Keefe then heavily edits the footage and presents it in a sort of mockery of an "investigative report," released with headline-grabbing allegations. It usually takes no more than a few days for these efforts to blow up in his face but no matter how often it does, he keeps right on churning them out and his followers keep right on eating them up--Wile E. Coyote going over the cliff over and over again.
The O'Keefe project currently causing such a stir is entitled "Rigging The Election," echoing Donald Trump's constant refrain whenever facing a potential loss. O'Keefe bills it as an "investigation into the dark, backroom dealings of the Hillary Clinton presidential campaign" and he released two videos in the series this week. Both suffer from some of the same really obvious problems. Among other things, they're edited in such a way as to obscure the context of most of what's said in them, they offer no clear timeline for when these conversations are taking place relative to either one another or to events in the campaign (rather important, for reasons I'll cover in a moment), they're staged, edited and narrated in such a way as to leave viewers with a certain impression of events that isn't supported by the footage itself and that impression--that misimpression--is their story. Nothing else is offered to support it. O'Keefe adopts superficial trappings of investigative journalism but if he or any of his gremlins ever investigated the veracity of any of the statements in these videos, they're silent on the results--or the existence--of any such inquiry.
The problematic nature of that last becomes immediately apparent in the footage of Scott Foval of the Foval Group, who works as a subcontractor for political consulting firm Democracy Partners and also for pro-Democratic group Americans United For Change. Foval seems to like to run his mouth. He brags about how he's a guy who, unlike some of his more timid comrades, gets things done and doesn't worry too much about niceties like legality. Speaks in often grandiose terms. Tells some stories that sound a bit far-fetched. Foval is the central focus of both of O'Keefe's videos and the sole source for what O'Keefe's spins into the sensational allegation around which the first is built and everything he says comes through a cloud of hot air offered in what appears to be a series of saloons! While drinking.
The fact that political partisans organize demonstrations against their opponents is about as much a revelation as the color of the sky but O'Keefe's first video, released Monday, struggles mightily to present this as some dark conspiracy that O'Keefe and his operatives are unraveling. That word--"dark"--is, in fact, used repeatedly. O'Keefe sets it up thusly:
"There is a narrative that supporters at Trump rallies are violent and dangerous, looking to beat up protesters who don't agree with them but our undercover investigation of the Hillary Clinton Democratic party machine reveals a very different story."
Except it doesn't. The rest of the video is devoted to unspooling O'Keefe's alternate narrative, the idea that operatives from various groups the vid associates with the Clinton campaign are actually the ones orchestrating this violence but in the undercover footage, the only one who talks about instigating violence is Foval and while he says he wants the anti-Trump demonstrators he organizes to be attacked by Trump supporters so as to make the news, he's also very clear that it's Trump supporters alone who bring the violence. He calls them "naturally psychotic" at one point, "crazies" at another, and the only tactics he describes for getting them to lash out are things like wearing a Planned Parenthood t-shirt or saying things with which they disagree."If you're there and you're protesting and you do these actions," says Foval, "you will be attacked at Trump rallies... we know... [Trump's] supporters will lose their shit." Contrary to O'Keefe's implication, this can only work because many of Trump's supporters are "violent and dangerous" and, regularly urged on by the candidate himself, will "beat up protesters who don't agree with them," and that's exactly what has happened over and over again, regardless of whether those protesters were organized by Foval or not.
That fact has the effect of rendering this alleged practice--the central allegation of the video--rather spectacularly uncontroversial, which is, of course, why O'Keefe pours on the weasel-wording. His conspiracy narrative is often constructed around an elaborate fairy-tale aimed at low-information viewers. He asserts that the anti-Trump demonstrations are presented as "spontaneous" then positions himself as the hero who comes along to draw back the curtain and expose them as, in fact, highly organized by a black and secret conspiracy of Democratic operatives. When, for example, O'Keefe is talking about an anti-Trump demonstration that, in March, shut down a Trump appearance in Chicago, he says "based on our reporting, the event was not spontaneous" and then tries to "prove" it. But all of these protests are openly organized. It is, of course, impossible to get hundreds or even thousands of people to show up for any sort of political event without organization. In this internet age, a three-second Google search will yield a wealth of details. In Chicago, congressman Luis Gutierrez and other elected officials openly called on their constituents to join them in protesting Trump, a Facebook page dedicated to protesting the Trump event was launched and a multitude of different groups--Black Lives Matter to MoveOn to Mijente, Assata's Daughter, the Black Alliance for Just Immigration and on and on--were involved in this organizing. These are the sources of anti-Trump protests, not some cabal of secret Democratic-party-connected organizers, and Trump doesn't draw demonstrators because of anything that secret cabal does, he draws them because people in a liberal democratic society find his protofascist message extremely offensive. Any sizable demonstration--by groups of any political orientation--has to be organized and that patently obvious fact sends a big portion of O'Keefe's fantasy narrative up in smoke.
O'Keefe introduces Aaron Black of Democracy Partners and Americans United For Change as a fellow who "directs the 'spontaneous' protests at Trump and Pence events." Black, in the hidden-camera footage, says "nobody's really supposed to know about me." Gotcha! Except Black's activities are a matter of public record. Turning to his profile on the Democracy Partners website, one reads, among other things, "Black is instrumental at organizing rapid response events targeting GOP Presidential candidates throughout the country for Americans United for Change during the 2016 elections." In the vid, Black claims to be "deputy rapid response director for the DNC for all things Trump on the ground" and this is how O'Keefe ties him to the DNC. Did O'Keefe investigate this claim, like, say, a journalist? The video is silent on the question, which would be damning enough, but Time's Philip Elliot then looked into this and confirms, via an examination of the FEC records with which O'Keefe and co. couldn't be bothered, that Black hasn't worked for the DNC during this two-year election cycle. As a DNC official told Elliot, Black "was just bullshitting."
O'Keefe uses his footage to draw connections that aren't born out by it and to make all sorts of inferences he makes no effort to prove. His aim is to tie everything he's presenting to the Democratic party and/or the Clinton campaign, which really means tying Foval to those entities, though Foval doesn't appear to have worked for either. Foval was a subcontractor for Democracy Partners and Democracy Partners worked for the Democratic National Committee. That firm never worked for the Clinton campaign but it had contact with that campaign through the DNC. Bob Creamer of Democracy Partners is a longtime Democratic insider and another who gets the hidden camera treatment. Creamer is shown describing his work for the DNC, which involved organizing anti-Trump demonstrations. O'Keefe buttresses his straw-man assertion that the Chicago protest was "not spontaneous" with a brief clip of Creamer, who says "we have a call to the campaign every day to go over the focuses that need to be undertaken." See? The Clinton campaign is in on it! Except the Chicago demonstrations happened in March and Democracy Partners didn't start working with the DNC until June. O'Keefe tries to tie what Foval is saying to what happened in Chicago but according to the same Time article referenced above, Foval didn't become a subcontractor for Democracy Partners until some time in April. And that, dear reader, is why James O'Keefe doesn't offer a timeline for any of this material.
More importantly, at no point does Creamer ever say a word about inciting violence at Trump rallies. He says nothing about even knowing of such things. O'Keefe tries to tie him to this by showing a brief clip of Foval describing how he and Creamer obsess over getting press attention for the events they hold but Foval isn't, at that point, talking about inciting violence. Aaron Black organizes protests and says he was involved in organizing the Chicago events but he, likewise, never says anything about inciting violence. O'Keefe's hidden cameras seek out Zulema Rodriguez, another activist who says she took part in the Chicago demonstrations and who says she talks to the DNC and the Clinton campaign every day, presumably as part of some sort of conference call for activists, but--stop me if you've heard this one before--she doesn't say anything about inciting violence.
Is it remotely plausible that O'Keefe's operatives would fail to try to get these people to talk about this, the central allegation in their "report"? Where's that footage? Where's the explanation? And while Foval speaks admiringly of Creamer and Creamer is, in turn, how O'Keefe connects Foval to the DNC, Creamer never mentions Foval, not once. If O'Keefe's operatives ever asked Creamer about Foval, there's nothing in their video to indicate it. The infrastructure Foval describes is substantial--training for activists in major population centers all over the U.S.--but O'Keefe's operatives never give any indication of having investigated any of this. There's certainly training of activists by an infinity of orgs--like the organization of demonstrations, it's conducted above-ground--but, again, O'Keefe's hidden cameras are never able to find a single activist who claims to have been trained to incite any violence. Foval refers to activist training as "agitator training," which allows O'Keefe, with some fleet-footed editing, to infer it's training in incitement but obviously, that could be a reference to any sort of activist training and in another clip from that same conversation, presented later in the vid, Foval is describing training people to bird-dog candidates.
O'Keefe goes off on a tangent about bird-dogging, presenting it as some sort of secret code Foval is using. "It's a word we had not heard until we got into this investigation," he claims, then points out the fact that it appears in the hacked Democratic emails recently released by Wikileaks, again tying Foval to the Democrats. "Violence at Trump Rallies Traced to Clinton Campaign and the DNC Through Process Called Birddogging," screams a header on the Project Veritas website. Further down, the site says Foval, in this footage, is "introducing the term bird dogging to the political lexicon." But in reality, bird-dogging is a well-known phrase that refers to a longstanding tactic by activists of asking candidates questions, usually ones that are politically tough for them to answer, and trying to get them on the record as either responding or dodging the issue. In the vid, Foval talks about putting people in the right place to do this. Outside of O'Keefe's shadowy conspiracy narrative, its meaning and usage is can be ascertained via a simple Google search, which returns sites like this, this, this, this, this, this, this and this, and those are just the ones on the first page of results.
Despite O'Keefe's record and the obvious, galaxy-sized holes in his scenario, various rightist commentators have followed O'Keefe's lead. Some of them have plunged even further down the rabbit-hole as the internet is suddenly abloom with false claims that it's the anti-Trump demonstrators who are violent. That was the approach used by Donald Trump at Wednesday's presidential debate. Trump, in his usual rambling manner, asserted that the O'Keefe video shows Democrats "telling people to go out and start fist-fights and start violence," which is entirely false.
Is this business of training people to incite violent incidents something that really happens or is it just a lot of barroom bullshit? When one removes O'Keefe's interlocking false narratives, it hardly matters. As Foval describes his activities--and, again, he's the sole source for any of this--Trump's supporters have always had it in their power to utterly foil his Evil Scheme--if, indeed, any such not-really-terribly-evil-scheme even exists--merely by not acting like a bunch of animals whose immediate reaction to the presence of someone who disagrees is to physically attack that person. If such activity, whatever the source, exposes Trump's supporters as a pack of violent protofascist asswipes, it isn't some black and damnable thing--it's what is known as a public service.
O'Keefe's operatives--they're described in the on-screen text as "journalist"s--ask leading questions (which becomes even more of a problem in the second vid in the series), never say how they presented themselves to their marks, never, as noted earlier, offer any timeline and they never confront their targets, not even to ask for a comment on their "report." Everywhere in their video, there are questions both small-and-minor and big-and-obvious that are left not only entirely unanswered but entirely unasked--they don't investigate anything and in his presentation, O'Keefe persistently chooses to conceal and mislead rather to illuminate and enlighten. As usual. There's little implausible in the scenario he presents but absent his false framing, there's little that's terribly controversial about it either.
The one exception, the one nugget of a legitimate story in all of this, is possible collusion between the Clinton campaign and various entities that are, by law, supposed to be independent of it. "Our attorneys say there is strong evidence of criminality," relates O'Keefe, but as with everything else in the vid, O'Keefe doesn't bother to get those attorneys on camera to explain the law in this matter or how there may have been a breach of it. The rules against collusion between political candidates and outside entities do exist and are regularly flaunted. That this happens isn't really news--everybody does it and everybody knows everybody does it--but there is, here, possible evidence on which to build a case, if anyone in officialdom was ever interested in doing so, which they aren't. Foval describes communications between the various groups and the campaign as "kind of like an ongoing Pony Express. It's not as efficient as it could be but that's because the law doesn't allow it to be," which does suggest the legalities are at least being observed. In another moment, he talks about plausible deniability. Unlike the rest of the rubbish in this vid, this is something worthy of further investigation. Last year, the Trump Foundation ponied up at least $10,000 to Project Veritas, which, in turn, produced and released these videos on one of Donald Trump's most persistent themes--the rigging of elections--right on the verge of the third and most critical presidential debate and Trump then used them to attack Hillary Clinton in that debate. Maybe that, too, is worth further investigation. Or at least another of those irony jokes.
O'Keefe ends his first video with a plea: "As we continue to release more videos, you must hold the mainstream media to account to further investigate what we've uncovered," and he'd certainly like nothing more than to have this all over the news in the final stages of the presidential campaign--which is his whole point--but he's already publicly stated he refuses to release any of his raw footage and given his record, the fact that previous releases of raw footage have repeatedly exposed his misrepresentations and the unbelievable mess he's made of this, the press should decline to indulge him.
 O'Keefe gratuitously notes that Foval previously worked for People For the American Way, "an organization funded by George Soros." Soros has become a lightning rod for anti-Semitic dog-whistling by rightists (PFAW is also funded by the Lear Family Foundation, the Miriam G. and Ira D. Wallach Foundation, the Bauman Family Foundation, the Evelyn & Walter Haas Jr. Fund, various unions and other sources).
 Right away, the careless sloppiness starts. A narrative by whom? Examples? O'Keefe never says and never offers any.
 Presented by who?
 O'Keefe includes a stray comment by Foval in which he says it would be unhelpful if a story appeared on CNN saying certain people were paid for "X." O'Keefe edits this to make it appear as if he's suggesting his violence fomenters are paid but it's unclear what he's discussing. This and a comment wherein Foval talks about paying homeless guys to do crazy things places over the entire narrative the notion that these demonstrators are paid without ever doing anything to substantiate it. What homeless guys? Paid to do what? And so on. Never answered, never asked.
 Further, any assumption that Black didn't clarify his actual job for O'Keefe's operative--like any assumption about any of this--is dependent on the honesty and reliability of O'Keefe and his editing software.
 O'Keefe lovingly notes that in 2005, Creamer "pled guilty to tax violations and bank fraud" then, in his next breath--maybe because he thought both sounded good--he says Creamer "was convicted."
 Because that would make it sound a lot less sinister, O'Keefe doesn't elaborate.
 Rodriguez's inclusion here seems virtually random. Nothing in the video ties her to any of the other players. Politifact reports that she did some paid for for the Clinton campaign in February in the lead-up to the Democratic primary. Time reports "she has since been working for liberal MoveOn.org and its affiliate in Ohio."
 Trump made some other false statements about the vids. Politifact disposed of them yesterday.
 By throwing out that statement without specifying what he's describing, O'Keefe (intentionally) creates the impression that it's the activities constituting the central claim of the video--demonstrators being organized to foment violence--that are illegal but they aren't and making them illegal was literally require repealing the 1st Amendment.