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I saw firsthand how Project Veritas paved the way for MAGA

James O'Keefe's misrepresentations and hubris anticipated the Trump era.
Project Veritas founder James O'Keefe speaks at the Conservative Political Action Conference in 2021.
Project Veritas founder James O'Keefe speaks at the Conservative Political Action Conference in 2021.Brandon Bell / Getty Images

During its 13-year history, the right-wing group Project Veritas tried to infiltrate progressive organizations, political campaigns and mainstream media organizations, and it published selectively edited videos intended to discredit those groups and compromise their operations.

In February, the tables turned, as Project Veritas founder and president James O’Keefe was questioned by his own board for what it called “financial misconduct.” (Allegations that O’Keefe has disputed.) He left the organization, and it sued O’Keefe some months later. Now Project Veritas has announced that it’s suspending operations indefinitely.

When O’Keefe founded Project Veritas in 2010, he unwittingly provided a model for Donald Trump’s MAGA Republican right.

When O’Keefe founded Project Veritas in 2009, he unwittingly provided a model for Donald Trump’s MAGA Republican right.

Both Project Veritas and the MAGA movement were built around powerful, egocentric leaders who see themselves as above the law. Both were also constructed on the quicksand of conspiracy theories and lies.

Veritas was brought down by a combination of outside demands for accountability, O’Keefe’s egotistical overreach, and internal divisions. And it appears that a similar fate awaits Trump’s MAGA empire.

In his first big “sting,” O’Keefe, purportedly dressed as a pimp, created a widely watched, selectively edited video in which he and a colleague approached Juan Carlos Vera, then an employee of the community organization ACORN, to get ACORN’s assistance with an ostensible scheme to smuggle young women into the United States from Mexico to work as prostitutes. What their video did not show was that Vera informed the police about the incident after they left.

James O'Keefe, the producer of "ACORN Revealed: The Philadelphia Story" at the National Press Club in 2009.
James O'Keefe at the National Press Club in 2009. Win McNamee / Getty Images file

The next year, the California attorney general issued a report that exonerated ACORN, and in 2013 O'Keefe settled a lawsuit brought by Vera for $100,000. But it was too late for ACORN. O’Keefe’s videos had frightened away its major financial backers, and the organization collapsed.

The ACORN sting began a long line of operations, all aimed at luring targets into making comments that could be edited in ways to discredit them — and to support right-wing conspiracy theories and candidates like Trump.

An investigative team at The Washington Post won a Pulitzer Prize in 2018 for its series that documented Veritas’ attempts to trick the Post into publishing false information about Alabama Senate candidate Roy Moore. Earlier this year, Veritas edited together some clips from a conversation with a Pfizer employee to claim that the company was “mutating” the Covid-19 virus (scientists who reviewed the video called the employee’s comments “bumbling nonsense”).

And in 2016 my firm, Democracy Partners, was infiltrated by Project Veritas operatives.

At the time I was a consultant for the Democratic National Committee and the Clinton campaign. I oversaw a program that worked with local leaders to do press events to promote the Democratic message on the same day, in the same media market, wherever Trump or his running mate, Mike Pence, campaigned. Overall, the program helped coordinate and/or generate 368 press events.

The Project Veritas attack on Democracy Partners was well planned and involved excellent spy-craft. Early in 2016, a Veritas operative, who many months later would come to work for our operation, had secretly recorded an organizer in a bar-room conversation. During the banter, he mentioned my name.

Later, the operative told the organizer that he had a “donor” who wanted to support our efforts. I talked to the “donor” and we agreed to have a drink — where he secretly recorded our conversation. Afterward, he called to say that his “niece” wanted to volunteer to do political work. I set her up with some of our organizers, where she did well. Still later, he called to say that his “niece” was moving to Washington, D.C., and would love to intern with us. Several weeks later, she began helping out in our office. Without our knowledge, she was also secretly wearing video recording equipment.

Project Veritas claimed to be “investigative journalists,” when it would be more accurate to say they were in the business of political espionage.

One day she accompanied me to the Democratic National Committee headquarters. O’Keefe would later write in his book “American Pravda” that his operative was “literally living out her character in America’s capital city much as Americans overseas did in Moscow during the Cold War.” He bragged that it was the first time an operative had infiltrated the DNC since Watergate. Project Veritas claimed to be “investigative journalists,” when it would be more accurate to say they were in the business of political espionage.

Three weeks before the November election, after a lunch with another Veritas operative posing as a donor adviser, I was ambushed by an interviewer from Sinclair Broadcast Group who showed me two of Veritas’ misleading videos and asked for comment. One of them purported to show me entertaining a scheme being pitched by a Project Veritas operative to bus voters from state to state to vote illegally. Their clip excluded that fact that I made clear in the same conversation that such a scheme was illegal and that we would have nothing to do with it. O’Keefe was planning to release the videos, alleging a variety of misdeeds, including trying to provoke violence at Trump events. Of course, none of our 368 press events had involved any violence whatsoever.

That evening, my lawyers demanded a meeting with the Sinclair reporters and subsequently with Sinclair’s editors and lawyers. After they had reviewed the full footage and the facts together, Sinclair never ran anything. But Project Veritas proceeded to release its misleading videos as best it could.

In 2017, Democracy Partners filed a civil suit against Project Veritas, and in the fall of 2022, a jury ordered Veritas to pay Democracy Partners $120,000 for violating wiretapping laws and for fraudulent misrepresentation.

Ours was not the only legal action that brought O’Keefe and Project Veritas to account. O’Keefe and his collaborators pleaded guilty to entering a federal building under false pretenses after they entered a U.S. senator’s New Orleans office, some of them disguised as telephone repairmen. Veritas was sued by a chapter of the American Federation of Teachers, and attempted to prevent The New York Times from reporting on its activities. After the FBI raided the homes of Veritas employees (including O’Keefe) in 2021, two Floridians pleaded guilty for delivering the stolen diary of Joe Biden’s daughter Ashley to Project Veritas ahead of the 2020 election in exchange for $20,000 each.

There was other outside pressure. Democracy Partners’ Lauren Windsor began a website called Project Veritas Exposed, which revealed the identity of more than 140 Veritas operatives.

And internal division began to mount. When he was ousted, the Veritas board accused O’Keefe of misusing the group’s funds for his own personal use. In one example offered, O’Keefe is accused of spending $14,000 “on a charter flight to meet someone to fix his boat under the guise of meeting with a donor.” They accused him of spending $150,000 on luxury “black car” services and $10,000 on a helicopter trip to Maine.

Veritas’ own employees became infuriated with O’Keefe’s behavior. In a memo, disgruntled employees complained that he abused staff. According to the Daily Beast, one staffer accused O'Keefe of being “a power drunk tyrant.” In August, the Westchester County district attorney, in New York, confirmed his office was investigating O’Keefe.

O’Keefe’s willingness to lie and his sense of being above the law were a precursor for Donald Trump.

The final blow came just this week, when Project Veritas announced it's finally going dark.

O’Keefe’s willingness to lie and his sense of being above the law were a precursor for Donald Trump when he entered the presidential race, riding down the escalator at Trump Tower, accusing immigrants of being rapists and "not sending their best," and later claiming he could shoot someone on Fifth Avenue and not lose political support, or brazenly offering to pay the legal bills of anyone who would “knock the crap out” of those who disrupted his rallies. 

O’Keefe was even the Trump campaign’s guest in the spin room after the last 2016 presidential debate.

O’Keefe allegedly treated Project Veritas’ funds like his own piggy bank — much the way Trump treated the government’s classified documents, which he famously says are “mine.”

Like O’Keefe, Trump is now beginning to be held accountable by the courts and prosecutors who disagree that he is above the law.

And now, like the team at Project Veritas, the MAGA Republicans in Congress — and across the country — are increasingly divided, in disarray, at each other’s throats.

America — and democracy — are safer now that Project Veritas is done. It will be much safer yet when the entire MAGA movement follows Project Veritas into the dustbin of history.