On Sunday night, at a New York meeting of the Friends of Abe — a conservative group for fellow travelers in deep blue cities — the conservative video investigator and activist James O'Keefe described what he had in the can.
“When some programmer or vice president at Twitter is there in Silicon Valley, and they say 'take that off Twitter, I don't like that,' we're going to get that on video,” O'Keefe said. “If someone at CNN is lying, cheating or stealing, I'm going to report that. We have people in their newsrooms. We have hundreds of hours of video. We're going to release it. … We have sources who now, thank God, are coming to me.”
The world outside of that crowded event heard this because two progressive activists were borrowing O'Keefe's tactics. Justin Charter and Ryan Clayton had sneaked in with rudimentary recording equipment; according to activist Pete Callahan, the key tool was a camera pen “like the kind you buy at the Spy Museum.” When O'Keefe opened the floor to questions, Clayton went first.
“Any fans of Broadway in the house?” he asked. “I got a song for James — it's a little bit of a roast.”
A few minutes and half of a song later, Clayton and Charter had been hauled out of the event and pushed to the street. O'Keefe broke the news, on Twitter, that he had been disrupted — and it was “all on video.”
The confrontation simmered all week, with Clayton claiming that he and Charter had been roughed up (“I thought I was going to die,” Clayton said in a statement) and O'Keefe releasing a video about the “unhinged” progressives trying to impede his work. The Friends of Abe infiltration had come just weeks after Clayton helped the investigative progressive reporter Lauren Windsor sting an O'Keefe reporter who was trying to expose and undermine left-wing plans to disrupt Washington during President Trump's inauguration.
In 2009, when O'Keefe burst into national politics with a cross-country sting of Association of Community Organizations for Reform Now (ACORN), the presidency of Barack Obama was just nine months old. For most of his career, O'Keefe had promised to expose “corruption” not just in government or unions or political campaigns, but in an America where the left set the rules.
At noon on Jan. 20, however, the most powerful office in America transferred to Donald Trump, whom O'Keefe had helped elect. The now-defunct Donald J. Trump Foundation had given $10,000 to O'Keefe's Project Veritas. In the final weeks of the 2016 election, Project Veritas had released sting videos purporting to show Democratic operatives Scott Foval and Robert Creamer entertaining a plan to commit voter fraud. Project Veritas did not release the full videos of the interviews, but as both men resigned their campaign jobs (Foval was fired, Creamer stepped aside), the stings got national coverage — and O'Keefe was among Trump's guests at the final presidential debate, where he talked about the videos.
Shellshocked, pugnacious and underfunded, several progressive activists have been trying to turn the tables on O'Keefe by distributing information about his network of undercover reporters — and, when possible, embarrassing them. One goal, said Windsor, was to find out to what degree Trump's campaign got in-kind help from the nonprofit Project Veritas and its political action arm.
“What did [Steve] Bannon know, and when did he know it?” Windsor asked in an email, referring to the Breitbart chief executive who, by the time of the pre-election PV videos, was part of Trump's campaign. “What did Trump know, and when did he know it? Did either of them directly or indirectly support infiltrating the Hillary Clinton campaign? There’s then the question of what intelligence the O’Keefe operatives learned inside the DNC and other orgs working for the Hillary Clinton campaign that could have been passed on to the Trump campaign. The parallels to Watergate are chilling.”
One difference is the new asymmetry between O'Keefe's influence and the influence of the left. The pre-election “rigging the election” videos nailed Democratic operatives who were influential — and invited to the White House — but whose observable influence in the election was limited to getting protesters to rallies. The series that Windsor and Clayton interrupted with their sting got inside the DisruptJ20 mini-movement to wreck the inauguration, and led to one arrest. But DisruptJ20 had little clout even before the sting. Windsor, who broke national news when she obtained audio from inside Koch network donor summits, works under the umbrella of American Family Voices; according to financial filings, its assets at the end of fiscal 2014 amounted to just $40,257.
O'Keefe, meanwhile, has the ear of the president, and gratitude that Trump showed in the form of a ticket to the inauguration. His responses to Windsor et al have portrayed them as alternately ineffective and unhinged. In the video Project Veritas released about Clayton and Windsor, the activists were portrayed as dangerous, threatening characters who had tried but failed to disrupt honest work.
And the Friends of Abe sting itself did not expose much that O'Keefe had not said in public. By using the Q&A to get thrown out, Clayton sparked a second-day story about being roughed up, but no new information about O'Keefe's plans. Project Veritas has, over the years, perfected a style of asking pointed or leading questions to pull embarrassing answers out of targets. Its antagonists have not.
“The plan was to interview him as he walked out of the building later and ask a bunch of questions like that, most importantly about his funding from the Donald J. Trump Foundation and his personal relationship with Donald Trump,” Clayton explained in an email. “During his speech, he essentially made that connection for us by bragging about phone calls with President Trump, and so the most important part was covered.”
On Thursday, Clayton's sting partner Justin Charter (but not Clayton or Windsor) also participated in a botched attempt to promote the counter-O'Keefe campaign — a news conference called by DisruptJ20 to expose “new information” about O'Keefe. Set for the National Press Club, it was moved at the last minute to an adjacent food court, where a small group of confused journalists listened to a rambling presentation interrupted several times by a security guard asking when they could possibly leave. A Project Veritas ally easily found the conference, and Friday, O'Keefe released a video making fun of what he'd found — and of the very idea that he needed to be “exposed.”
“We welcome anyone who peacefully disagrees with us to any public forum or event we may be hosting,” said Project Veritas spokesman Steve Gordon.
But the O'Keefe stingers believe they have disrupted what had been a pipeline from Project Veritas to the mainstream conservative media. PV's investigation of inauguration plotters led to an investigation, but did not break through the media. On Twitter last week, O'Keefe suggested that Fox News had put the organization on a blacklist.
That, Windsor et al believe, was likely a result of the counter-sting raising too many questions about what Project Veritas had in the can. But with Trump in the White House, for the first time, O'Keefe is a member of a political establishment. At the Friends of Abe speech, as in the well-covered speech he gave at the pre-inauguration “DeploraBall,” O'Keefe boasted that the media was becoming irrelevant, and that Trump was speeding that process along. Media outlets might ignore his videos, but state legislators did not. Trump, he said, was the media's assignment editor; O'Keefe's own work would continue to reveal how the president's enemies were hopelessly corrupt.
“We have video tapes in Newark of teachers union representatives bragging about how a child was raped and they covered it up,” said O'Keefe. “When people see those videos, maybe Betsy DeVos would be a little bit less controversial.”