Blog ››› ››› MATT GERTZ
Weeks before Election Day, convicted criminal James O’Keefe has come forward with a new set of heavily edited video tapes that he claims prove the conservative myth of widespread voter fraud. Republican nominee Donald Trump is already incorporating the charge into what appears to be his campaign’s closing argument -- that he is the victim of a “rigged” election system, and the only way he can lose is if the election is stolen from him.
Halfway through October, it is clear that Trump is reading from campaign CEO and Breitbart News chief Steve Bannon’s playbook.
O’Keefe, the right-wing videographer behind the nonprofits Project Veritas and Project Veritas Action, is currently rolling out a series of videos based on footage captured by undercover operatives who wore hidden cameras while interviewing Democratic political operatives. The heavily edited videos focus on the Democrats discussing efforts to have activists disrupt Trump events and discussing a proposal -- made by the O’Keefe operatives filming them -- to engage in a voter fraud plot.
O’Keefe has a long history of engaging in criminal, misogynistic, ethically dubious, and bizarre behavior related to his video stunts. He has pleaded guilty to a misdemeanor charge of entering a government office under false pretenses; sought to set up a video “sting” in which he would lure a female CNN reporter onto a boat filled with sex toys and attempt to seduce the reporter on camera; and had to pay a former video target $100,000 and publicly apologize in a legal settlement.
O’Keefe’s videos often make a big splash, but they fall apart under scrutiny by reporters and state investigations. His past work attempting to document the ease of voter fraud is no different. In 2012, Project Veritas released videos that O’Keefe claimed proved “widespread voter fraud” in several states and the District of Columbia. But the videos did not show any instances of voter fraud -- or voting at all. Instead, the videos showed actors almost committing a crime by attempting to obtain the ballots of other people under false pretenses, and they accidentally illustrated how difficult it would be to commit actual voter fraud. O’Keefe claimed that another video showed voter fraud in North Carolina, including “ballots being offered out in the name of the dead” and “non-citizens voting." But the “dead” voter from the video was not actually dead, and the “non-citizen” in the video had become a U.S. citizen decades earlier.
Media outlets were able to point out O’Keefe’s deceptive edits because Project Veritas previously released unedited raw footage from its hidden camera stings. The group has not done so for its latest election projects. Instead, media outlets reporting on the videos are relying solely on the snippets of video and the context that O’Keefe provides.
That matters because O’Keefe’s two latest videos edit down footage from undercover operatives working over a period of several months into 34 minutes of narrated video purporting to show progressive operatives “rigging the election.” “The editing raises questions about what was said and what may come out later,” as The Washington Post’s David Weigel pointed out.
As Time magazine’s Philip Elliott noted following a review of the videos, “Without the full context” omitted by the O’Keefe videos, “it’s impossible to know” what one operative meant in a quote featured in one of the videos, and that “there’s no way of telling if that person said what the tape purports” in another case. He says that exculpatory information showing operatives refusing to engage in voter fraud appears to have been excised; he notes that while some such commentary remains, it comes “long after viewers are convinced they are watching Watergate unfold in real time.”
That’s the review from a reporter who is viewing the tapes skeptically. No such skepticism is in evidence at the launching pad for the videos: Breitbart News. The right-wing website, which has been among Trump’s biggest boosters, received the exclusive on the first the videos O’Keefe released this week and has produced several stories on the allegations.
Trump has been mired in a downward spiral for the past several days, repeatedly claiming that the election has been rigged against him by the media and voter fraud. His claims have been rejected across the spectrum, including by Republican election lawyers and officials who have described the allegations as “unfounded” and “irresponsible” and said they could have “a destabilizing effect on the orderly administration of the election.”
The Trump campaign -- headed by Bannon, who is on a leave of absence from his job running Breitbart News -- has clung to O’Keefe’s videos as evidence that its candidate is actually right about the election being rigged. Bannon himself was investigated by Florida prosecutors earlier this year following a report that he “was registered in a home in Miami that he rented for his ex-wife.”
Campaign manager Kellyanne Conway claimed during an interview on Fox News’ Hannity that the voter fraud video shows that “Donald Trump was ahead of his time. … He's been talking about this for the last couple days. People have been criticizing him. He has no evidence. And here we see it goes right to the top.” Campaign surrogate Newt Gingrich said House Speaker Paul Ryan (R-WI) and Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY) should call on the FBI to open an investigation.
At a speech yesterday, Trump highlighted O’Keefe’s video on activists disrupting his rallies. It seems likely that he will use the “voter fraud” video to bolster his bogus claims of a rigged election at tonight’s final presidential debate.