Undercover videos produced by professional sting artist James O'Keefe have forced two Democratic operatives out of their jobs and, as Donald Trump tells it, confirmed every suspicion about a “rigged” election. The footage doesn't validate Trump's conclusion, but it does confirm something else about the race for the White House: It is increasingly characterized by leaks, hacks and surreptitious recordings.
Consider the major news stories of the past few weeks:
- The New York Times's report that Trump could have avoided paying income taxes for nearly two decades was based on documents leaked to the newspaper by an anonymous source.
- Unaired “Access Hollywood” footage leaked to The Washington Post revealed Trump's boast that he can “do anything” to women and get away with it because he is famous.
- The hacking of John Podesta's email account exposed excerpts of the Wall Street speeches Hillary Clinton has refused to release, showing that the Democratic presidential nominee described “open trade and open borders” as her “dream.”
Earlier in the campaign, a hack of Democratic National Committee emails indicated favoritism of Clinton over Bernie Sanders and prompted Debbie Wasserman Schultz to step down as party chairwoman. And a hack of Colin Powell's emails made clear that the former secretary of state is not a huge fan of either major-party nominee.
There has been plenty of strong, public records-based reporting in this election cycle, too — David Fahrenthold's probing of Trump's charitable giving and Andrew Kaczynski's mining of Howad Stern episodes to name just a couple examples — but many of the biggest stories have origins that have caused the candidates and voters to question sources' motives.
U.S. intelligence officials have blamed Russia for the email hacking efforts. The Office of the Director of National Intelligence and the Department of Homeland Security said in a joint statement this month that “these thefts and disclosures are intended to interfere with the U.S. election process.” While Russia could be trying to undermine confidence in American democracy, in general, the Clinton campaign has leveled the more specific charge that Vladimir Putin is trying to help elect Trump.
Meanwhile, Trump has cast the leaks of his tax documents and lewd comments as part of a media conspiracy against him. Some of his supporters have said in interviews that they don't believe five women who have come forward with sexual assault allegations because they waited to speak out until the final month of the election. The women are lying to hurt Trump, the billionaire's ardent backers say.
Questions about motives and credibility have colored reactions to the latest O'Keefe videos, too. As The Washington Post's David Weigel explained in a report early Wednesday morning, O'Keefe's group, Project Veritas Action, is “viewed very skeptically by political reporters” because of its mixed record.
O'Keefe's 2009 sting of ACORN led to the destruction of that group; a 2011 sting of NPR executives led to two resignations. Subsequent investigations found discrepancies between how the undercover journalists approached their targets and how they packaged what the targets said. In the latter case, then-NPR executive Ron Schiller quoted a Republican who viewed tea party activists as “racist”; the edited clip made it appear that Schiller himself held that opinion.
It is possible that O'Keefe's newest videos also lack context, but his group's undercover footage clearly shows Scott Foval, national field director of Americans United for Change, bragging about sending “mentally ill” people to Trump rallies to provoke violent reactions from the Republican nominee's supporters. Foval also talks about wanting to bus voters from outside Wisconsin into the state to cast fraudulent ballots, though there is no evidence that such a scheme is actually in the works.
Foval was fired Monday by Americans United for Change, and Democracy Partners founder Robert Creamer, whose group contracted with Foval, said Tuesday that he is “stepping back” from the work he was doing on behalf of Clinton and the Democratic National Committee.
Once again, the way an important story came out is part of the story itself. In an election where so much of the news results from leaks, hacks and undercover recordings, voters are at least well-practiced in the act of deciding whether to take information at face value, or discount it because of the process through which it became public.