James O’Keefe assured me it wasn’t a joke.
Standing at the lectern at the National Press Club in Washington, D.C., Tuesday morning, in a charcoal suit and plaid tie, O’Keefe said he was serious.
This was a bombshell.
This was criminal.
O’Keefe is a conservative activist and media celebrity known for producing sting videos targeting liberal organizations and politicians.
His most (only) successful takedown occurred in 2009 when he recorded himself dressed up as a pimp, asking ACORN employees to help him fund his brothel. They took the bait, and after he released the footage, ACORN collapsed.
His other perpetually-costumed truth hunts have failed.
In 2010, he was arrested in New Orleans for trying to make illegal recordings at Democratic Senator Mary Landrieu’s office. Two of the activists accompanying him were dressed up as telephone repairmen. In 2014, he donned an Osama Bin Laden mask and crossed the U.S.-Mexico border to prove how easy it is (Bin Laden had been dead, by this point, for three years).
O’Keefe says he’s a journalist who wants to expose “waste, fraud, abuse, corruption, dishonesty and malfeasance in society,” but he is, at his core, a showman. And if it weren’t so goddamn funny, the “bombshell” he dropped on Tuesday wouldn’t have been much of a show at all.
To the right of O’Keefe’s stage was a TV airing footage from inside Hillary Clinton’s June 7 campaign launch on Roosevelt Island. The camera focused unsteadily, like a scene out of the Blair Witch Project, on Clinton’s merchandise booth, where her campaign sold T-shirts and buttons.
“Hi, can I get a hat and a rainbow button, please?” O’Keefe’s undercover agent, a female whose name he refused to reveal, asked.
O’Keefe, narrating the video, informed us that two women working the booth were in fact high-ranking Clinton staffers: Molly Barker, the national director of marketing for the campaign, and Erin Tibe, the campaign’s national compliance manager.
And then, the bombshell.
When O’Keefe’s undercover agent approached the merchandise booth, she found herself standing next to a Canadian tourist. But when it came the tourist’s turn to make her purchase, there was an issue: Campaigns cannot legally accept donations from non-U.S. citizens.
O’Keefe’s undercover agent, apparently outraged on the Canadian woman’s behalf, protested: “She traveled all the way from Canada to support Hillary!”
But the Canadian woman, whose identity O’Keefe said is unknown (he claims his organization tried to track her down, but was unsuccessful), had a solution: O’Keefe’s undercover agent could just take her money and make the purchase for her.
Upon this suggestion, O’Keefe’s agent asked Barker, “Canadians can’t buy them, but Americans can buy it for them?”
Barker replied, “Not technically. You would just be making the donation.”
Under a false name, according to O’Keefe, his agent gave the campaign $75 in cash.
“These senior Hillary campaign officials are not rookies,” O’Keefe narrated. “They know the ins and outs of the election code, and we’ve shown you that they’re willing to break the law.”
He ended the video with a promise: There would be more bombshells like this one. “Stay tuned, Hillary, and check your email,” he joked.
The video ended with AOL’s “You’ve got mail” alert.
To O’Keefe, this footage is proof that the Clinton campaign is inclined toward criminal behavior. “It’s about the willingness to break the law,” he told the room full of reporters on Tuesday. “It’s not about the amount of money.”
But there is a problem: If Clinton’s campaign broke the law, so did O’Keefe’s organization.
A close reading of the Federal Election Commission’s campaign finance laws makes it clear that campaigns cannot “solicit or accept” donations from foreign nationals, and that individuals cannot “knowingly provide substantial assistance” by “acting as a conduit or intermediary for foreign national contributions and donations.” Individuals can’t legally make donations under a false name, either, meaning that if you’re keeping score: Clinton’s campaign appears to have violated the law once, and O’Keefe’s organization twice.
The FEC said they couldn’t comment on O’Keefe’s video because in order to determine whether or not the law was broken, someone would need to file a complaint against the Clinton campaign and the FEC would need to vote on whether or not they violated the law. Even if O’Keefe did file a complaint, this would never happen because the FEC is dysfunctional.
But O’Keefe admitted to reporters that he didn’t contact the FEC and he doesn’t have plans to file a complaint. Instead, he sent a letter to Clinton’s campaign, in which he seeks to have them return the $75 (though, since O’Keefe doesn’t know who the Canadian tourist is, it seems unlikely that the money will ever be returned to her).
Asked by The Washington Post’s Dana Milbank if they were admitting to breaking the law, O’Keefe’s lawyer said that their offenses were illegal, too, yes, but akin to “jaywalking.”
Clinton’s offenses, though, are gravely criminal. How this adds up, it’s not clear.
Paul Ryan, of the Campaign Legal Center, told me that according to my description of the video, it seemed O’Keefe’s staffer violated the law, and so did Clinton’s staffers who knew the money came from the Canadian tourist.
Clinton’s campaign has not yet responded to a request for comment.
After his bombshell revelation, I asked O’Keefe the obvious question: “Is this a joke? It feels like a prank.”
He replied, “Is this a joke? Well, the Clinton campaign doesn’t think it’s a joke, because they’re talking to The Washington Post about it. And we sent the letter to the Clinton campaign, so no, this is not a joke.”
After stumbling through questions for half an hour and failing to make a convincing case that this was the “bombshell” he promised, O’Keefe’s spokesperson asked, “Olivia, do you have a follow-up?”
Yeah, I said, were they sure this wasn’t a joke?
O’Keefe, now defensive, gave his soaring answer while maintaining eye contact. “Well, you know, I understand where you’re coming from. You’re trying to use ridicule, and I appreciate that…The Hillary campaign disagrees with you. They disagree with you. And I think a lot of people in this room also disagree with you…And I promise you that in the next couple years we’re going to have an army of people, 100 people, across the country investigating everything. And when that happens? These politicians are going to clean up their act. We’re going to create an army of exposers and if you are lying or stealing or cheating, we are going to find you and make you an unwilling Internet celebrity. I’m telling you that right now. And I’m very excited because this is just the beginning! We’ve got more. Every few days we’re gonna release another tape. And you can continue to say it’s a joke, but people are gonna be resigning.”