At last night’s final presidential debate, Donald Trump’s attacks on that “nasty woman” Hillary Clinton featured this reference to James O’Keefe’s two latest “investigative” videos purporting to expose the dark underworld of liberal politics:
“If you look at what came out today on the clips,” he said, “I was wondering what happened with my rally in Chicago and other rallies where we had such violence. She’s the one, and Obama, that caused the violence. They hired people, they paid them $1,500, and they’re on tape saying, be violent, cause fights, do bad things.”
He continued: “When I saw what they did, which is a criminal act by the way, where they’re telling people to go out and start fistfights and start violence. In particular in Chicago people were hurt, and people could’ve been killed in that riot. And that was now all on tape started by her.”
It is certainly not easy to conduct any kind of balanced review of O’Keefe’s videos, festooned as they are with cartoonish touches like grainy images, scary music, gross narrator overstatements of the grand-historical importance of his findings, and repetitive out-of-context quotations of the evil Democratic targets talking smack and using obscenities. But it’s still worth digging through.
Not being an election lawyer or someone trained to spot misleadingly spliced video material (something O’Keefe has been accused of in the past), I am in no position to make a comprehensive assessment of the whole project. But it is reasonably clear from viewing O’Keefe’s first two videos that one of them is basically about an ethically dubious Democratic tactic that is not actually illegal, while the other is about a hypothetical illegal activity (cooked up, it seems, by O’Keefe) that does not appear to have occurred.
O’Keefe’s first video focuses on two independent contractors working for Democratic groups, Robert Creamer of Democracy Partners and the exceptionally loquacious Scott Foval, formerly of Americans United for Change. Foval spends a lot of time boasting about their success in planting people at Trump rallies. The plants are designed, with their words or attire, to provoke violent responses from Trump supporters.
This is indeed news, and something the Democrats involved should be ashamed of. Perhaps they should even lose their jobs (as Foval actually has). But deliberately making oneself the target of violence (1) is not illegal and (2) should not obscure the fact that the people committing the violence bear at least half the blame. There is no constitutional or statutory right to listen to your candidate rant and rave about criminal immigrants and Muslims and various “losers” and “rigged elections” without being exposed to the presence of someone who visibly disagrees — even if someone put them up to it.
The only illegal activity this video really alleges is that of forbidden coordination between the Clinton campaign and various “independent” pro-Clinton entities. But the main evidence of that is the use of the term “bird-dogging” for the violence-provoking actions at Trump rallies and the use of the same term in Clinton communications stolen and made public by WikiLeaks. As the Washington Post’s Dave Weigel points out, “bird-dogging” can refer to all sorts of tracking and engagement operations other than those which court violence. So this guilt-by-association proves nothing.
The second video, by contrast, is all about illegal activity (though not necessarily the “massive voter fraud” O’Keefe, with his signature overdramatization, keeps talking about in the narration). But it revolves around a hypothetical scheme for getting illegal votes cast that O’Keefe seems to think of, which is then batted around by Foval, turned down by his alleged co-conspirator from the first video, and batted around some more by a third operative who is himself AN UNDOCUMENTED ALIEN! So whereas someone sympathetic to O’Keefe’s case might conclude it turns up shady talk worthy of investigation, a smoking gun it is not.
It is probably worth adding that the people O’Keefe lures into this shady talk are field operatives, who as anyone who has worked in large political campaigns can tell you, feel vastly underappreciated and think of themselves as unsung warriors willing to bend rules and take bullets for the cause. It is a separate question whether they have actually committed the kinds of acts they clearly would like to think their listeners find them capable of undertaking — or whether anyone would give them the means to do so.
You can bet future operatives in both parties will be warned to keep their mouths shut.