Scott Foval and Robert Creamer, two little-known but influential Democratic political operatives, have left their jobs after video investigations by James O'Keefe's Project Veritas Action found them entertaining dark notions about how to win elections. Foval was laid off on Monday by Americans United for Change, where he had been national field director; Creamer announced Tuesday night that he was "stepping back" from the work he was doing for the unified Democratic campaign for Hillary Clinton.
The moves came after 36 hours of coverage, led by conservative and social media, for O'Keefe's video series Rigging the Election. In them, Foval is filmed telling hidden-camera toting journalists about how they've disrupted Republican events; Foval also goes on at length about how an organization might cover up in-person voter fraud. In another Tuesday night statement, the Creamer-founded Democracy Partners, which used Foval as a contractor, denounced both Project Veritas and the statements caught on camera.
"Our firm has recently been the victim of a well-funded, systematic spy operation that is the modern day equivalent of the Watergate burglars," said the firm. "The plot involved the use of trained operatives using false identifications, disguises and elaborate false covers to infiltrate our firm and others, in order to steal campaign plans, and goad unsuspecting individuals into making careless statements on hidden cameras. One of those individuals was a temporary regional subcontractor who was goaded into statements that do not reflect our values."
Both "scalps," as O'Keefe refers to them, drew new attention to a campaign that had become viewed very skeptically by political reporters. O'Keefe's 2009 sting of ACORN led to the destruction of that group; a 2011 sting of NPR executives led to two resignations. Subsequent investigations found discrepancies between how undercover journalists approached their targets and how they packaged what the targets said. In the latter case, then-NPR executive Ron Schiller quoted a Republican who viewed Tea Party activists as "racist"; the edited clip made it appear that Schiller himself held that opinion.
Project Veritas and Project Veritas Action - the latter group created to more freely cover political activity - had a more fitfully successful record. In a series of videos, O'Keefe and other journalists posed as registered voters to expose how easy it would be to obtain ballots fraudulently where voter ID was not required. But there were high-profile failures, too. A sting in which a journalist posed as a Canadian citizen and purchased Hillary Clinton campaign merchandise was unveiled at a press conference where the first question was: "Is this a joke?" A mole sent to work for a Democratic campaign in Wisconsin was exposed and fired. A call to the Open Society Foundations, founded by the frequent conservative target, went awry when a Project Veritas journalist left the phone off the hook. The result was shared with New Yorker reporter Jane Mayer.
The result of all that was that the Rigging the Election videos got a skeptical reception - at first. But the video of Foval, a Wisconsin-based politico with a long resume, had him bragging about a litany of political dirty tricks. In the first video, he boasts of "conflict engagement in the lines of Trump rallies," takes credit for the violence that canceled a Trump rally at the University of Illinois in Chicago, admits he's paid "mentally ill" people to start trouble, and says there's a "Pony Express" that keeps Democratic operatives in touch, regardless of whether they work for super PACs or the campaigns not permitted to coordinate with super PACs.
In the second video, Foval spends five minutes discussing how voters might be brought from outside Wisconsin to commit voter fraud, buying cars with Wisconsin plates to avoid looking suspicious. "We've been bussing people in to deal with you ... for fifty years and we're not going to stop now," he says.
Since the video's release, Foval has responded to media requests by saying the video did not deserve attention from "legitimate news organizations." A call to Creamer, the husband of Rep. Jan Schakowsky (D., Ill.), on Tuesday night went to voicemail. But while neither man is defending the content of the videos, the editing raises questions about what was said and what may come out later.
Foval, who repeatedly digs himself a hole with his words, also seems to overhype his successes. Reporters who covered the Trump appearance at the University Illinois in Chicago found that students, not Americans United for Change, were responsible for the shut-down of the Trump rally; the video's evidence to the contrary is that Zulema Rodriguez, an activist paid in February by the DNC, says on tape that she was there and "did that." In the first video, O'Keefe makes much of the term "bird-dogging," which Foval describes as putting people at the front of rope lines to make sure "they're the ones asking questions."
"It's a word we had not heard until we began this investigation," O'Keefe says, noting that the term appears in WikiLeaks emails that include Clinton staffers.
But it's not a new term, and certainly not secret. "Bird-dogging" is a fairly common activist tactic, and reporters often recognize it when seemingly "perfect" questions come from a political audience. In August 2015, Foval told the Milwaukee Journal-Sentinel that People for the American Way, his employer at the time, was "bird-dogging all" of the Republican presidential candidates. What was seen as a nuisance political tactic then becomes, in the video sting, a secretive form of voter/candidate intimidation.
In the "voter fraud" video, Foval looks -- somehow -- even worse, describing how voters could be sent to Midwestern states to cast fraudulent ballots. But when Project Veritas Action edits this into a narrative, something gets lost. Foval says that "Bob Creamer comes up with a lot of these ideas," but what the "ideas" are is lost to a quick edit. After a quick introduction of Creamer that covers his 2005 conviction for tax evasion, Creamer is seen talking to a journalist posing as a possible donor, rambling a bit as he describes how to get voter IDs to people who need them.
"What do you really need, OK?" says the journalist. "What makes you a citizen? And if you look at that checklist, it's an ID card of any kind that shows you who you are and a pay stub that shows you're getting paid at a local address some place."
"To get registered, you mean?" asks Creamer.
"Yeah," says the journalist. "Let's say I had business inside of, say, Illinois or Michigan, and I hired people, and I had addresses for them, I could write them checks, I could use them as day laborers or whatever and use them and find my way around the voter registration law for Hispanics."
Creamer quickly begins jotting down names of voter registration groups: "There are a couple of different organizations, that's their big trick." But while the implication is that the journalist is pitching mass voter fraud, he never says as much, and Creamer never agrees to it. In another tape, filmed at a restaurant, Creamer hears another version of the pitch and says "my fear is that someone would decide that this is a big voter fraud scheme."
In the end, Project Veritas Action's evidence that Creamer might help with a voter fraud scheme is that Foval hints at it. In a follow-up clip, Foval tells the undercover journalist that Creamer was not on board with any scheme to grant ID cards, but that he told Creamer it could be handled by someone else. "We talk about a lot of things we don't talk about," Foval says conspiratorially. In Project Veritas Action's telling, the "someone else" might be DREAMer activist Cesar Vargas, who is filmed saying he might be able to help another undercover journalist, if not in 2016.
But Vargas, as of now the only target of these videos who has not lost a job, claims that Project Veritas Action left out exculpatory video of the interview. "They have a transcript of our conversation to confirm I told them that voting twice was illegal," Vargas wrote on Facebook on Tuesday. "I will not respond to FOX News or the trolls but let them have their field day of conspiracies."
If that video exists, Project Veritas Action is not going to make it easy to watch. In the past, and in the immediate wake of some bad publicity, the group posted the entirety of its video stings online. It no longer does this.
"The reporting process and methods of Project Veritas Action are proven successful and effective and are the protected intellectual property and trade secrets of Project Veritas Action," said Steve Gordon, a spokesman for the PVAction Fund. "This policy is in accordance with the practices of news organizations globally and is generally accepted as the professional norm."
But Foval's sacking and Creamer's "stepping back" have already given the Trump campaign the confidence to run with these stories. On Tuesday night's episode of Hannity on Fox News, two campaign representatives said that the Project Veritas Action tapes validated everything Trump had said about the possible threat of election theft, and called for a hasty FBI investigation into anyone connected to Robert Creamer.
"Once again, Donald Trump was ahead of his time," said Trump campaign manager Kellyanne Conway. "We see that it goes right to the top."
"The FBI should be opening an investigation into these people right now," said Trump ally and former Speaker of the House Newt Gingrich.
David Weigel is a national political correspondent covering the 2016 election and ideological movements.