The absurdity present at a Tuesday press conference hosted by James O’Keefe’s group, Project Veritas Action, was as dense and finely layered as a wedding cake.
The reporters (including me) appeared confused about how they got to the press conference hosted at the National Press Club. Present at the press conference were five to 10 video cameras, along with a room of 30 or so reporters, all oblivious to the fact that we had been snookered into another supposedly salacious release from O’Keefe’s organization.
Clinton staffers have already been put on alert for hijinks from O’Keefe’s conservative group, which gained notoriety around the ACORN scandal, and put out a video last week showing a Clinton campaign staffer encouraging a “volunteer” to ask Iowans if they are Clinton supporters before registering them to vote.
“We have journalists across the country investigating inside the campaign. Not just this campaign,” O’Keefe said on Tuesday.
On Tuesday, the group teased its second release as “a powerful new undercover video confirming that corruption has permeated Hillary Clinton’s campaign at the highest levels.” The video purports to show Molly Barker, the director of marketing for Clinton’s campaign, accepting a campaign donation from a foreign national. Sounds pretty bad, right?
Then you find out that the “foreign national” is a Canadian woman who was simply trying to buy a T-shirt at Clinton’s kickoff rally, and that Project Veritas Action’s own “journalist” acted as an intermediary straw buyer to make the transaction, taking the Canadian woman’s money to purchase the shirt for her.
In the video, the Canadian visitor (who, O’Keefe says, Project Veritas Action did not find the name for) says, “Can I give her the money? She’s American. Can she buy it for me?”
“She could make a donation,” Barker says.
“Can you buy it for me?” the Canadian woman asks the Project Veritas Action operative.
“Sure, I’ll buy it,” the Project Veritas Action operative says. “So Canadians can’t buy them, but Americans can buy it for them?”
“Not technically,” Barker says. “You would just be making the donation.”
Project Veritas Action is comfortable conducting its operations under ethically dubious circumstances. The Washington Post’s Dana Milbank got at that in an exchange during the press conference with the group’s legal expert, Benjamin Barr.
Milbank: “I’m no expert on campaign finance law, but was that legal for your person to take that cash?”
Barr: “It’s a technical violation of the law. It’s akin to jaywalking for campaign finance. This is a low-dollar threshold contribution. There’s no reporting issues at play. It’s less than $200. So at most it would be a small civil penalty that’s a few hundred dollars. But what we’re really worried about is the Hillary campaign that has taken in a wide array of contributions. Once you aggregate beyond $2,000, then you’re within the criminal sanctions.”
Milbank: So you violated the law as well?
Later, Milbank asked if Project Veritas Action breaking the law is “an acceptable means to this end.”
“The only way to show that they were able to show this and be able to expose that was to act in that manner. Again, this is low-level, less than $200, lowest rung of FEC enforcement priority, akin to campaign finance jaywalking,” Barr said. “What we’re really concerned about is the Hillary campaign and the willingness to accept foreign national money and the possible ethics of additional behavior.”
Another reporter asked a follow-up question highlighting the cognitive dissonance: “Would the Clinton campaign’s infraction be jaywalking in the same way?”
“Not once they aggregate more than $2,000,” Barr said.
The irony of trying to bait the Clinton campaign with straw purchases is that O’Keefe himself has gotten himself into legal trouble, for the sake of his journalism. In 2010, he and four other men pleaded guilty to entering a federal building under false pretenses after attempting to tamper with phones in Sen. Mary Landrieu’s office.
“Is this a joke?” The Daily Beast’s Olivia Nuzzi asked later in the Q&A. “This feels like a prank.”
“Is this a joke,” O’Keefe repeated. “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.”
Not only does O’Keefe have the gumption to offer to entrap a political campaign to the tune of $40, his group is now seeking redress for its own straw purchase.
“The Clinton campaign should return their illegal contribution. I don’t see other remedies. That’s the only remedy that we’re seeking,” O’Keefe said at the press conference.
Meanwhile, Clinton allies have contended that only Project Veritas Action broke the law:
Campaign staff repeatedly cite the law in video, refuse foreign national's payment. Another huge fail for the O'Keefe sideshow.— Correct The Record (@CorrectRecord) September 1, 2015
Watching O’Keefe and his team continue to draw attention to themselves over relatively petty infractions while real scandals, such as the one over Clinton’s email use, are ripe for the picking must be extremely frustrating for GOP operatives. The time thatreporters spend covering O’Keefe’s sideshow is time that they could be spending looking into real foreign donations to the Clinton Foundation, or looking at the classified emails that Clinton sent over her private email server during her time at the State Department.
To quote Charles Baudelaire, “The devil's finest trick is to persuade you that he does not exist.” O’Keefe has the opposite intentions. His finest trick is to persuade you that he does still exist, and is worth listening to.