Thursday, October 27, 2016

Unrigging Rigging the Election III

On Monday, right-wing con-artist James O'Keefe released the third video in his "Rigging the Election" series, purporting to allege corrupt campaign practices by the Hillary Clinton presidential campaign. In the first two vids, examined here and here, O'Keefe and his operatives adopted a pose of "investigative journalists" yet conducted no real investigation into the charges they were making, charges based on a mess of O'Keefe-proferred misinformation, misdirection and obfuscation aimed at low-information viewers who pay little attention. His latest opus fares little better.

"In this story," says O'Keefe, "we'll show an illegal dark-money conspiracy between the Hillary Clinton campaign, the DNC [Democratic National committee] and the non-for-profit corporation Americans United For Change." The video follows an amusing bit of street theater conducted first by the DNC then by AUFC wherein activists dressed as Donald Duck dogged Trump campaign appearances as a reminder that Trump has repeatedly ducked calls to release his tax returns.

"It turns out the duck was Hillary's idea," claims O'Keefe[1] but his own footage shows this not to be the case. In fact, in the hidden camera footage, Bob Creamer--a target of all of O'Keefe's videos in this series--clearly explains the actual origin of the idea and he does so more than once. In one segment--the important one--Creamer relates at length,

"Originally, this guy Skalar, who... did the Chicken George in 1992, came to Lux and I with the idea of Donald Ducks. And I ran it up the flagpole in New York and put it down... and then it came up and they just said, uh, we'd rather do, what do you call it, Uncle Sam--'I want you to release your tax returns.' And Uncle Sam suits are easy to find for adults. Uh, but then I get a call, actually on the plane about to go to London last week, Christina Reynolds called and says 'I've got good news and bad news. The good news is the candidate would like to have a mascot following around... Trump but the bad news is she wants it to be Donald Duck.'[2] And that's because Skalar is an old Clinton hand, he had gone to some buddy of his who is one of her body people and she had explained, explained the idea to Hillary. And Hillary just loved it... So my answer to Christina was, if the future President of the United States wants ducks on the ground, we will put ducks on the ground."[3]

To unpack all of this, "Lux" is a co-founder of Creamer's own firm, Democracy Partners. O'Keefe makes no effort to explain this. Christina Reynolds is the Deputy Communications Director for Hillary For America--the Clinton campaign. "Chicken George"--also entirely unexplained by O'Keefe--was a campaign similar to Donald Ducks that was run against George Bush Sr. during his 1992 reelection effort--at a time when Bush was ducking debates with his presidential opponents, a guy  in a chicken suit dogged his public appearances. "Chicken George" was invented by John O'Meara and Derrick Parker in Michigan and grew from there. Presumably, "Skalar" was someone involved in that campaign or perhaps Creamer just got a name wrong. O'Keefe, trying to sell that false notion that "the duck was Hillary's idea," makes absolutely no effort to identify this person,[4] the actual source of the idea.

O'Keefe's central premise throughout this video is that Clinton dreamed up the duck idea and was secretly directing the duck campaign all along and he uses that footage of Creamer, just quoted, to sell this. In a different clip earlier in the vid, Creamer repeats his comment about the future president wanting "ducks on the ground," strengthening the impression O'Keefe is trying to convey. As Creamer tells the story, his conversation with Reynolds is the origin of that line. In another pair of later clips from a different context, Creamer talks about Clinton wanting the ducks. Cumulatively, this becomes the basis of the subhead O'Keefe slaps on the video, "Creamer Confirms Hillary Clinton Was PERSONALLY Involved," but, of course, the only thing any of it actually shows is that Clinton (apparently) once said she liked the idea--an idea that, contrary to O'Keefe, wasn't her own.

It isn't possible to deduce, from this video, how long it took for the events in Creamer's rundown of the origin and progression of the Donald Ducks idea to play out but other items in the video suggest it had been around for a while. O'Keefe's propensity for obfuscation leaves viewers with no timeline for any of his footage but some minor detective work answers some questions. Creamer was in that meeting with Brad Woodhouse--the head of Americans United For Change--and others.[5] O'Keefe never says when this meeting was held. Fortunately, it's possible to deduce it occurred in mid-August.[6] In another clip from the same meeting, Woodhouse says,

"We did Donald Ducks in May... we put out a whole blast and a release around the idea that he [Trump] was ducking... The key here is to have the visual and to have the costume and have the sign. We got so much shit for that blast. Reporters thought it was silly."

In still another clip elsewhere in the video (and not from this meeting), Scott Foval of the AUFC--the star of O'Keefe's previous videos in this run--says "the whole duck thing... the actual idea was hatched way back in May." So while O'Keefe has Clinton behind all of this, Creamer, in that meeting, says he got that call from Reynolds "last week," marking early- to mid-August as the point at which Clinton first entered the picture, at least three months after the idea had been floated, a form of it had even been launched and the decision to have Trump dogged by a mascot had already been made.

The Donald Ducks campaign from August was initially managed by the DNC but in September, the DNC abandoned it and the AUFC picked it up. This was reported in the press at the time, among other places, in a story in the Wall Street Journal referenced by O'Keefe:
"A DNC spokesman wouldn't say why it cut ties [to the duck campaign]. But the decision could help the political party's governing body avoid potential legal complications.

"Law Blog previously reported that Donald Ducks could pose trademark and copyright issues by running afoul of Disney's intellectual property rights."
 In O'Keefe's hidden camera footage, Creamer explained that the transfer of the duck "had to do only with some problem between Donna Brazile and ABC, which is owned by Disney, because they were worried about a trademark issue." Donna Brazile, who, from 24 July forward, was the interim chair of the DNC, is also an ABC News Contributor.

O'Keefe tries to slip in a call-back to his allegation in his first video that Democratic operatives were trying to incite violence at Trump events. "Creamer and Foval even expected there to be violence following the duck," he narrates, "and it sounded like they wanted it to happen." O'Keefe then plays a clip of Creamer and one of Foval, neither of whom express anything remotely approximating a desire for this to happen.

The big scandal here, according to O'Keefe, is that all of this constitutes illegal coordination between the campaign and entities that are, legally speaking, supposed to be independent of it. At that point, a real journalist would find some experts in campaign finance law and put them on camera to lead viewers through the legal aspects of this matter. Instead, O'Keefe just asserts that entirely unnamed and unseen "federal campaign law experts" have told him "the ducks on the ground are likely 'public communications' for purposes of the law. It's political activity opposing Trump, paid for by Americans United For Change funds but controlled by Clinton/her campaign." Though O'Keefe apparently couldn't find a single such expert willing to put his face and his name behind that assertion, the Business Insider had no trouble finding a pair of them willing to offer an analysis:
"Two election law experts told Business Insider that the rules against this type of coordination generally only apply to paid media advertisements — for example, TV, newspaper, or internet ads.

"'The word coordination in the English language means something very different than what it means to the Federal Election Commission,' said Rick Hasen, a professor at the University of California at Irvine who specializes in campaign finance regulation and election law.

"Hasen, who said he did not see the video and could not speak specifically to it, other than what was described to him, added that the laws are 'generally for media advertising, which this doesn't sound like [the video] necessarily is.'

"Brendan Fischer, associate counsel at the Campaign Legal Center, agreed that FEC rules typically apply to media advertising. The example he gave was of a campaign asking a Super PAC to run an ad in a certain media market. That, he said, would be in violation of the FEC regulations.

"'Groups can talk to one another,' he said. 'That's not covered by the coordination rules.'"
On Monday, Fox News' Special Report offered a report that badly distorted the issue but host Bret Baier did talk to Elliot Berke, an expert in campaign finance law,

"The first thing we need to look at is whether or not there's a public communication and it's not clear to me from the video they put out that there actually is a public communication. That really means a paid political advertisement, so something in the newspaper, broadcast, satellite, something like that. Here, it looks like there just were protesters dressed up as Donald Ducks that had appeared. I doubt the FEC would see that as a public communication."

However, when Baier asked about the ducks being Hillary Clinton's personal idea, Berke replied:

"Well, that's a different question, because any time a candidate, committee or political party is working with an outside group, you get into possible in-kind contributions and here, the allegation is that the candidate herself may have directed an outside group to engage in this behavior, and if so, that could be an in-kind contribution. In-kind contributions can be permissible but they need to be reported, but because we're dealing with an outside, third-party group here, that group may also take corporate contributions, and if that's the case, then it clearly would be illegal."

The rules regarding these matters are outlined on the Federal Election Commission's website. This writer has no expertise in these issues, so the question of legality isn't going to be settled here, but it isn't settled by O'Keefe either, who is also without any expertise--on the matter of the legality of the duck, strictly a quack--but confidently proclaims "the campaign law violations" are "undeniable."[7]

O'Keefe says, "representatives of Hillary's campaign run daily conference calls, we witnessed, with Creamer, AUFC managers and their operatives. They were talking about where to send the duck and the duck's message." O'Keefe offers no footage of any of this, though he certainly has it if, as he says, his operatives were present. The timeframe in which any such conversations happened is important too, because the DNC originally ran the duck campaign--if they're talking about it during that period, it's a non-story and what they say about it after that period is crucial. O'Keefe shows a clip of Scott Foval:

"So the operation is to insert and get the duck message in there if we can, or the extremist message, depending on... we have to clear this with DNC... We have to clear which message we're going to be targeting at each event."

Again, no timeframe, but in another clip elsewhere in the video, one that appears to come from the same conversation, Foval talks about the AUFC taking over the duck campaign. Obviously, the substance of those conference calls with the DNC takes on even more importance. Though both the specific content of any such exchanges and their timing are central to O'Keefe's claims, he leaves all of that information on the cutting-room floor.

The DNC cut ties with the duck in September, "but behind the scenes," O'Keefe extravagantly asserts, "the DNC and the Hillary Clinton campaign was still running the show, breaking federal campaign coordination laws." To buttress this, he shows a clip of Jenna Price, an assistant press secretary for the DNC. An O'Keefe operative asks her, "why aren't you taking credit [for the duck]?" She replies,

"Just 'cause there were issues. There were, like, it's a long story, ask Bob about it... [I]t wasn't party politics, but we just have to be careful about these things and the way we talk about them and who knows about certain things."

O'Keefe infers this is because the duck operation was illegal but in footage shown elsewhere in the video (because why be clear when you can obfuscate, right?), O'Keefe's operative did ask Bob Creamer about this and, as noted earlier, Creamer explained it was over Disney's grumblings over their intellectual property relating to the use of the Donald Duck character in light of Donna Brazile's employment by ABC (Disney). Obviously, a thorny matter and one the DNC didn't want to discuss in public because of the legal ramifications if Disney decided to make an issue of it (the DNC didn't offer any explanation in that Wall Street Journal article either). Despite there being an obvious reason for Price to be tight-lipped, O'Keefe just runs right past it, turning her into more grist for his conspiracy.

O'Keefe is, here, very much repeating the same tactic he employed in the "voter fraud scheme" he alleged in his second video. He builds his entire case on innuendo and obfuscation when, if the accusations he's peddling are true, he would have footage to directly prove it, yet that footage somehow never makes it into his video. O'Keefe's big target here is the Clinton campaign--his intro calls this "part 3 of our undercover investigation into the dark backroom dealings of the Hillary Clinton campaign"[8]--but the only significant connection he's able to make to it is Creamer describing a single phone-call from Clinton's Deputy Communications Director, who, in Creamer's telling, relates that Clinton loved the duck idea and then some other comments deriving from that phone conversation. Where's the footage of those conference calls wherein the duck is discussed and that O'Keefe claims his operatives witnessed? Barring that, where's an account of them? Where are the legal experts O'Keefe claims to have consulted and if they exist, why do their conclusions contradict those of the named experts the press has consulted?

Hanging over all of this is another really obvious question: why would any of these parties, operating at the highest levels of American politics, go so far as to intentionally violate federal election laws in order to carry out this amusing but utterly silly and inconsequential campaign involving a duck that few ever saw anyway? That it seems so unlikely doesn't mean they wouldn't do it but it really is an extraordinary claim and there's precious little here to substantiate it. O'Keefe's operatives spent at least five months on this operation. If this is the worst they've found, it says something about those whom they've targeted alright, but it's something very different from what O'Keefe claims.



[1] The Project Veritas website suggests Clinton is "the originator of the Donald Ducks scheme."

[2] As Creamer explains elsewhere in the vid, this was "bad news" because unlike the plentiful Uncle Sam costumes, it's very difficult to find Donald Duck costumes for adults.

[3] Creamer offers a truncated version of this same story to one of O'Keefe's operatives in a clip that appears earlier in the video.

[4] O'Keefe the "journalist" does nothing with that information--information that falsifies one of his central claims--except talk right past it, offering a version of events that directly contradicts it while apparently hoping no one will notice.

[5] O'Keefe correctly identifies Woodhouse as the head of Americans United For Change but the identity of the others, where they are and when this meeting is happening are all details O'Keefe declines to share.

[6] There are other clips from this same meeting scattered around the video. O'Keefe, with his usual lack of specificity, doesn't say these clips are from the same meeting but in the footage, it's taking place in the same room, shot from the same camera angle, Woodhouse is wearing the same shirt and so is the woman beside him--the same woman in each clip. In one, Creamer makes reference to Republican vice-presidential candidate Mike Pence appearing at the Iowa State Fair "this week"; Pence appeared at that event on Saturday, 20 August.

[7] It would be interesting to hear counselor O'Keefe's legal opinion on whether there are any legal questions involved in his taking thousands of dollars from the Trump Foundation then, in the final stretch of this presidential campaign, creating a series of hit-pieces using one of Trump's own favorite themes--"the election is rigged"--to attack Trump's opponent.

[8] It must be hard to keep a straight face when describing the duck campaign as in any way "dark," but at least O'Keefe still has his ominous music to try to sell it. Looking at his effort as a filmmaker, the phrase "tone-deafness" immediately leaps to mind.

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