Lots of tape. Not much context
The latest ‘gotcha’ videos from conservative provocateur James O’Keefe’s Project Veritas Action have some shocking claims that, if they are true, would indicate Democrats are playing dirty to get Hillary Clinton elected.
In one video, a contractor seems to brag about sending homeless and mentally ill people to harass Republicans. Someone identified as a Democratic National Committee staffer appears to claim credit for pushing Republican contender Donald Trump’s rally in Chicago toward violence. In another, consultants look like they are describing a plan to bus voters across state lines and registering immigrants in the country illegally to vote.
But if O’Keefe’s previous efforts to infiltrate and expose his foes such as ACORN and NPR are to offer a hint, there are plenty of reasons to be skeptical. O’Keefe has previously spliced videos together to imply its subjects were saying things they were not.
Even so, the latest video has cost someone identified by the Democratic National Committee chairwoman “a temporary, regional sub-contractor” his job. Another established DNC vendor gave up his contract. Another protester who says she was at the Chicago melee linked herself to Clinton’s campaign, although she was paid for work in Arizona in the weeks before anything happened in Illinois.
The release of the videos made conservatives giddy that O’Keefe had claimed yet more scalps for his long-standing effort to show liberal hypocrisy through hidden-camera footage. And more embarrassing videos are expected to come before Election Day, O’Keefe promised. Donald Trump urged his audiences in Colorado on Tuesday to go online and watch them.
“Did you see the protesters yesterday? The protesters are paid a lot of money by the DNC, and I kept saying, I wonder why those people are here? Because they never seem to have much on their mind other than stand up and protest,” Trump said. “Yesterday, it came out, but it was barely covered by the media, but it’s all over the Internet. They were busted. They were paid $1,500 each. They were given cell phones.”
The videos were published on the conservative Breitbart website, whose former chairman is now Trump’s campaign CEO. Many writers on the site have pushed pro-Trump messages and their readers are loyal to Trump’s message of disrupting the GOP Establishment. It is a favorite of many on the alt-Right.
“I sort of always knew it in Chicago,” Trump, said of a March event that had to be scrapped in the face of violence. “Even last night we had people stand up for no reason. It’s like, what are they doing here. Can you imagine? That’s a big story. Hardly covered by the media.”
Here’s a quick guide to what we know so far.
“What you’re about to see will make you uncomfortable and angry. It’s graphic, uncensored and disturbing. Our attorneys say there is strong evidence of criminality,” O’Keefe said in introducing the first of two lengthy videos released so far.
A man identified as Scott Foval is the star. He is at times identified as the national field director at Americans United for Change and as a deputy political director at the separate People for the American Way, both liberal groups. He also seems to be a contractor for Democracy Partners, a consulting firm. Foval boasts of ties to the high command of Democratic politics and his role in hiring agitators to embarrass Trump during conversation is taped surreptitiously in what appear to be bars. “We’re starting anarchy here,” Scott Foval says in one clip. “We have mentally ill people that we pay to do shit,” he says in another.
He claims to be the “hub” of coordination between the super PACs, DNC and Clinton’s campaign—a spot that could be illegal. But at other points, he seems to say that the DNC and the campaign cannot coordinate. That, actually, is also incorrect. The DNC and the Clinton campaign often coordinate as is allowed. It’s SuperPACs that need to stay separate in many of their activities. So it’s not clear that Foval really knows campaign finance law, at least according to the edited footage.
“The thing that we have to watch is making sure that there is a double blind between the actual campaign and the actual DNC, and what we’re doing. There’s a double blind there. So they can plausibly deny that they knew anything,” Foval says.
At other moments, it doesn’t take much imagination to see how the same quotes on these tapes can be read both ways. Take this one from Foval: “The one thing I’m never going to do is have some kid get punched out at a rally and then not have his doctor bill and his legal bill, if he gets arrested, paid for.” Veritas says that is proof that the “Clinton dark machine is ready for the violence they foment.” Defenders say it is proof that Foval was rejecting Veritas’ suggestion that they ought to start riots to draw attention. Without the full context, it’s impossible to know.
Foval is hardly the only one on the tapes. Another individual identified as Aaron Minter and Aaron Black, claims he runs anti-Trump operations and is a DNC deputy director of rapid response. He says “that was all us” about the Chicago protest. “None of this is supposed to come to back to us,” says Minter/ Black, whom Veritas says uses both names.
“Nobody is really supposed to know about me,” Minter/ Black says in one video. That is easy. He wasn’t a DNC employee. Neither Minter nor Black shows up on DNC payroll during this two-year campaign cycle, according to a search of Federal Election Commission records. As one party official tells TIME: “He was just bullshitting, exaggerating his role and title.”
Minter/ Black also is said to have coordinated the Chicago protest with Zulema Rodriguez, an activist who has been at several anti-Trump events. On one video, taken at the Republican convention in Cleveland, she claims to have been part of an Arizona protest that shut down a highway, as well.
FEC records show she was paid in February for helping the Clinton campaign organize in Arizona, but her work there ended on Feb. 29. She has since been working for liberal MoveOn.org and its affiliate in Ohio.
A third player is Cesar Vargas, an activist who has helped young people who came illegally to the United States as young children, or whose immigration status has lapsed. Vargas’ work with the DREAM Action Coalition made him an easy mark for Veritas. But, on tape, he says the plan to bus immigrants in the country illegally to states with lax rules on voting is “not gonna’ happen this election.” Off-camera, a Veritas operator seems to get Vargas to admit the plan is voter fraud, but there’s no way of telling if that person said what the tape purports.
Finally, the other major figure featured prominently in the videos is Robert Creamer, a longtime Democratic consultant who at first appears to entertain plans to coordinate anti-Trump protests with Clinton’s campaign. His firm, Democracy Partners, joined up with the DNC in June to build crowds and recruit grassroots activists. He was ostensibly Foval’s employer until Democracy Partners and the DNC cut ties.
“I am unwilling to become a distraction to the important task of electing Hilary Clinton, and defeating Donald Trump in the upcoming election,” Creamer said in a statement. “As a result I have indicated to the Democratic National Committee that I am stepping back from my responsibilities working with the campaign.” (Creamer is the husband of Rep. Jan Schakowsky of Illinois. Creamer pleaded guilty to bank fraud in 2005 and served five months of prison and 11 months of house arrest.) He vigorously denied O’Keefe’s charges and tactics he calls “dirty tricks.”
“James O’Keefe, the discredited individual behind this well-orchestrated spying scheme directed at our firm, uses methods that would make Richard Nixon and the Watergate burglars proud,” Creamer said. “O’Keefe executed a plot that involved the use of trained operatives using false identifications, disguises and elaborate false covers to infiltrate our firm and other consulting firms in order to steal campaign plans and goad unsuspecting individuals into making careless statements on hidden cameras.”
THE ANATOMY OF A STING
The O’Keefe investigation began at the latest in April 2016, when a Veritas staffer who went by Steve Packard met Foval, according to two officials familiar with the undercover effort who recalled their experiences for TIME. The man known as Packard befriended Foval and often pumped him for ideas about political strategy in bars. It was like a summer camp for political gamesmanship, one said.
Around that time, Creamer hired Foval as a sub-contractor for a Democracy Partners’ in-the-field program known as Mobilize, which delivered trained protesters at sites like Trump’s hotels. Over drinks, Foval appeared to brag about having a far greater role in the operation than he did. “I will probably wind up being a partner there at some point,” Foval said in the videos. In another he talked about Creamer with admiration: “Bob Creamer is diabolical and I love him for it. I have learned so much from that man over the last 20 years.”
Some time in the spring of 2016, a purported donor who called himself Charles Roth approached Creamer about getting involved in politics. The pair met a few times, including at Washington’s Marriott Marquis hotel lobby. According to one official, the man who called himself Roth said his father was an immigrant from Hungary and wanted to help immigrants. His ideas didn’t seem like a good fit for Democracy Partners, so Creamer referred him to Americans United for Change, where Creamer is a consultant.
At Americans United for Change, Roth made his pitch. Ultimately, the plan to boost immigration through sketchy means wasn’t a match, but Roth donated $20,000 anyway. In turn, Roth asked Creamer if he could help his niece find a role at the political conventions. Two officials now suspect this purported niece filmed Rodriguez in Cleveland, and both expect she kept the cameras rolling while she volunteered three days a week for Creamer until last week.
A fourth known Veritas insider then entered the picture, someone who was described as a financier from London. That person met with Creamer offering to put together a plan that would give people jobs and company IDs in a state in which they did not live so that they could vote there. Creamer was dubious. “My fear is that someone would decide that this was a big voter-fraud scheme,” he says on tape that suddenly ended as he seemed to be starting another sentence.
Foval later says on tape that Creamer called him. “I’m not going to touch that with a 10 foot pole now,” Foval quoted Creamer saying. Foval then tells Veritas that he responded “nor should you.” But that comes more than 13 minutes into the 16-minute second film—long after viewers are convinced they are watching Watergate unfold in real time.
The interim chairwoman of the DNC, Donna Brazile, said her organization was conducting an internal investigation. “We do not believe, or have any evidence to suggest, that the activities articulated in the video actually occurred,” Brazile said. “The discredited source of these videos, James O’Keefe, is a convicted criminal with a history of doctoring video to advance his ideological agenda.”
Indeed, O’Keefe has previously pleaded guilty to crimes related to other projects and settled civil suits against his targets. Democrats immediately challenged some of his claims on this project with items as basic as calendars and employment contracts.
For instance, Mobilize didn’t sign a contract with the DNC until June 8, 2016—well after the March protest in Chicago. Officials are working to match Foval’s exact employment dates with the venues when he might have been filmed.
And other progressive groups have already bragged about their roles organizing the protests in Chicago. The protest was more a product of local groups and students at the University of Illinois-Chicago, who spread the word about the Trump rally on social media. A local student, Ja’Mal Green, a local Bernie Sanders supporter, and others recruited protesters on Facebook. One activist started an online petition on MoveOn.org to shut down the Trump rally that garnered more than 50,000 signatures.
A spokesman for MoveOn confirmed that local activists led the way in organizing the protest. That may explain Rodriguez’s connection.
WHAT COMES NEXT
More videos are expected. And O’Keefe and his allies are cranking up pressure on reporters to share their work. O’Keefe said, without offering evidence, that the first video didn’t get mainstream traction because Clinton’s team was looming with threats against those who would dare broadcast. “Those televisions stations spiked the story at the last minute. Our sources tell us the reason they did so was fear of retaliation and retribution from a future Hillary Clinton Administration,” O’Keefe said in a second video focused on voter fraud.
It is likely Trump leans on them when he confronts Clinton during their third and final debate on Wednesday in Las Vegas.
—With reporting by Tessa Berenson and Sam Frizell.