Nearly five months ago, long before anyone else knew that comedian Sacha Baron Cohen had been working on a new series for Showtime, a post popped up on the Virginia Citizens Defense League Facebook page with the plea: “URGENT! share this far and wide!”
Apparently, it did not go far and wide enough.
The message was from the group’s president Philip Van Cleave, who viewers of this past weekend’s premiere of Baron Cohen’s Who Is America? will recognize as the gun-rights activist who gamely appeared in an elaborate firearms training video aimed at toddlers.
In the segment, Van Cleave giddily showed kids how to wield “Gunimals” like “Puppy Pistol” and the “Uzi-corn” to make bad guys take a “long nap.” He even sang a song urging kids to aim at the “Head, shoulders, not the toes, not the toes” as Baron Cohen’s Israeli Col. Erran Morad comically yelled “Fire!” beside him.
Unlike most participants in this gun-centric section of the episode—including current Rep. Matt Gaetz (R-FL) and former Rep. Joe Walsh (R-IL), who discovered they had been duped just days before the episode aired—Van Cleave has apparently known since February.
“Last weekend, while doing what seemed to be a regular interview, I discovered that a movie is being made with the intent to discredit gun-rights leaders across the country,” Van Cleave wrote on his group’s Facebook page on February 20. His full letter appeared the next day on the /Firearms subreddit.
“No, this is not a joke, it is real and we need to get the word out to other gun-rights organizations, gun-rights leaders, and prominent firearms trainers across the country and we need to do this FAST.”
Positing that Harvey Weinstein or Michael Moore might be behind the project, Van Cleave warned that “EXTREMELY WELL FUNDED PROFESSIONALS” had “laid out the red carpet, by providing luxury accommodations, limousine service, and providing a generous monetary allowance to cover meals and other expenses for two days.”
He added: “They use psychological manipulation, as well as lies and tricks to put their victim into comedic situations that subject them to public shame, embarrassment, and ridicule. I believe the intent is to destroy reputations and even lives.”
Van Cleave said that it all started when he received an email request for an interview with an Israeli security expert—who turned out to be the fictional Col. Morad—that read: “Unlike the misguided position of American liberals, who aim to eradicate guns altogether, Israel has proven that universal gun training and widespread gun ownership actually leads to a safer society.”
“I do interviews all the time, and this one didn’t seem to be all that much out of the ordinary,” Van Cleave added. He said his “radar turned on big time” when Morad brought the idea of arming kids as young as four years old. But instead of walking out of the interview or refusing to read off of a teleprompter, he want along with everything.
“Because of this and various other odd things I noticed during the interview, I was now convinced that something wasn’t right. This wasn’t real and probably some sort of a set up,” he wrote. “I could only think of Hollywood’s threat. At a minimum, it could be a comedy which would play only in Israel, but it could be a more damaging attempt to make a ‘mocumentary,’ by someone like Michael Moore, or, even worse, a Sacha Baron Cohen-esq ‘Borat’-type of shock comedy meant to be devastatingly embarrassing and humiliating to the victim in the crosshairs.”
Remarkably, of everyone Baron Cohen interviewed for his project, Van Cleave is the one person who apparently suspected it might be the British comedian, and then filmed the damning training-video sequence anyway.
Both Gaetz and Walsh claimed to be fans of Baron Cohen’s previous work and still had no idea it was him behind that makeup.
“For better or for worse, I decided that I would play along with the scheme so I could find out who was behind this and where this was going,” Van Cleave added. “I figured if I was right about this being a set up, I could blow the whistle and get a warning out to the gun-rights community across the country to protect as many people as possible and maybe derail this attack. If it turned out to be nothing, then no harm, no foul.” He said they recording for “almost 3 hours” using Airsoft guns as props and a teleprompter for his scripted lines.
This week, the VCDL Facebook page re-posted the letter for Van Cleave, along with a few additional quotes from him about how he believes he words were taken out of context by the show.
"My hesitation when Cohen asks me if I'll help him make a safety training video for children is where I was deciding to play along or not in order to figure out who was behind this film,” he now claims, “what they were actually doing and how they were doing it, and then getting the word out to head this off at the pass and keep it from being completed.”
On Monday, the Washington Post reported that some local politicians who had received donations from the group are now trying to “distance themselves” from Van Cleave.
“What a buffoon,” Virginia state Sen. Bryce Reeves (R-Spotsylvania) said. “Apparently common sense wasn’t issued with his concealed-carry permit. Come on, dude, really?” On the other hand, Virginia’s Republican Senate candidate Corey Stewart, who also received money from from VCDL last year, laid the blame solely on Baron Cohen, saying, “I think it’s just disgusting and we shouldn’t pay him any attention.”
“In the end we played each other and I confirmed what I feared this was all about,” Van Cleave wrote in his original post, though it remains unclear how Baron Cohen got “played” exactly. “Sadly for me, I’m sure I’m going to be in whatever crazy film finally comes out, looking really stupid and, just as sadly, I’ll probably be in good company. A few of us will no doubt get hammered, but if we can get the word out IMMEDIATELY, we might be able to save the reputations of many other good people.
“Finally, looking at the possibilities and what I saw while making the ‘training film,’ I’m betting this is going to end up being a ‘Borat’-style film and it’s going to be vicious on the victims,” he concluded.
Van Cleave likely had no idea how right he was about the end result. Instead of making a two-hour movie, Baron Cohen has produced a seven-episode series that has also promised damning video footage of figures like Dick Cheney and Sarah Palin. It has been pretty “vicious” so far, but no one has come out of it looking worse than Van Cleave does.
—Adam Rawnsley contributed reporting.