Conservative stingmeister James O’Keefe is once again targeting Democrats, this time with a new series of undercover videos drawn from Senate campaign staffers.
The first videos in his Project Veritas’ latest supposed sting were released a week ago, with O’Keefe pledging that even more salacious bits are still to come. What remains unclear is whether anyone outside the conservative media echo chamber still actually trusts him.
O’Keefe has a lengthy history of producing secretly recorded footage that sparks an initial wave of controversy but appears more mundane, and sometimes deceptively edited and entirely different, upon closer inspection. One of this story’s authors was the target of a 2011 O’Keefe sting, “To Catch a Journalist,” in which it was revealed that he went out for drinks with sources. O’Keefe has since turned to weightier targets. And in 2018, those targets appear to be staffers revealing that their candidate is hiding political positions to win over moderate voters.
Early last week, Project Veritas released video shot from inside Sen. Claire McCaskill’s (D-MO) campaign. It was the second in a series after a similar release aimed at Tennessee Democratic Senate hopeful Phil Bredesen. O’Keefe also boasted at a conservative fundraiser that he has upcoming videos from campaigns in swing-state Florida and Nevada races, according to audio released by The Intercept.
Per usual, not all of the supposed revelations are bombshells. O’Keefe makes much of undercover video of McCaskill saying she’d support a ban on “bump stock” gun accessories—a policy position she has also “revealed” publicly, on Twitter.
O’Keefe did not return a request for comment, but it seems evident that other media outlets have grown to view his group’s work with extreme skepticism. Though the stings have generated local newspaper and TV coverage in the targeted states, they have failed to gain traction in the national media outside of Fox News. And they’ve gained traction on Fox, in part because McCaskill's opponent, Missouri Attorney General Josh Hawley, went on Sean Hannity’s show to hype them.
McCaskill’s campaign has called on Hawley, in his capacity as AG, to investigate whether O’Keefe’s agent broke state laws by infiltrating her campaign, claiming that the intern, known to them as “Adam Thomson,” also had access to their voter database.
For Democratic operatives, the entire episode is both familiar and paranoia-inducing. Campaigns have now grown accustomed to alerting senior staff to be on guard for O’Keefe’s moles. One senior aide on Hillary Clinton’s presidential campaign said that the thought that they may have accidentally brought a Project Veritas employee on to the campaign occurred “a lot.”
“It was a talked-about thing,” the aide said. “We were very careful in intern meetings about what we said.”
On occasion, Clinton was stung. Project Veritas released a video of a Canadian woman asking to purchase merchandise from Clinton’s presidential campaign launch. It also put out a series of surreptitious recordings with officials from groups aligned with the Clinton campaign, in which they casually discussed how to incite protests within Trump rallies.
Robert Creamer, a Democratic operative who was caught up in that latter operation and is currently suing O’Keefe and Project Veritas, said campaigns are especially vulnerable to O’Keefe’s tactics because they’re short-lived operations that involve people who haven’t worked together before.
“Campaigns are movements and thrown-together organizations that move very quickly, so they are prime targets for this kind of deception,” Creamer said.
The Clinton merchandise sting was widely mocked as a weird nothing-burger. The videos aimed at Creamer and other Democratic figures caused a fair amount of consternation at the time, but ultimately was considered a non-factor by Clinton’s actual campaign aides.
“They have had made it clear that they don’t care what a person’s role is, they will make them sound like a senior official,” said another senior Clinton campaign aide. “But it wasn’t a major deal. I couldn’t even recall today what the video was that they released.”
With no presidential campaign to disrupt, O’Keefe has dispatched his minions elsewhere. The group has targeted the Oregon’s governor race, along with the Senate contests. They also have gone after Democratic-allied groups. In 2017, an operative for the group masqueraded as a college student to get an internship with the American Federation of Teacher (AFT)’s Michigan federation. Part way through the internship, the AFT affiliate realized something was fishy, confronted the intern and subsequently filed suit against Project Veritas.
But it didn’t end there. According to an AFT official, there have been several times in 2018 when a Project Veritas operative has shown up at a union office or a school, pretending to be a spouse or family member of a teacher. Once there, the operative will explain that they have evidence that the teacher—to whom they’re supposedly related—has abused a kid, doesn't know what to do, and needs the union’s protection.
“Teachers’ first inclination is to help students and families, but now—on top of everything else they do every day to create safe and welcoming environments for their students—they also have to be on the lookout for Project Veritas operatives coming to their schools or their unions to cause harm,” AFT President Randi Weingarten said in a statement. “We’ve worked with our affiliates so they know the common tricks and deceptive tactics employed by O’Keefe and Project Veritas in order to deceive and intimidate, and so they know what to do if they are approached.”
While some groups have taken proactive measures to prevent O’Keefe from stirring up trouble, others have tried to turn the tables on him—releasing evidence and video of O’Keefe’s antics before he makes his own content public. Lauren Windsor, a Democratic activist, has created a website devoted to helping Democrats identify O’Keefe’s operatives. While O’Keefe presents himself as an undercover journalist, Windsor said he’s more like the head of a team of “political hitmen” making in-kind contributions to GOP campaigns.
The latest round of videos, she said, prove that Democrats still haven’t figured out how to foil O’Keefe’s infiltrators.
“You warn people about it, say ‘it’s coming, it’s coming,’ take steps to guard yourself, and then it happens anyway,” Windsor said.