James O’Keefe’s Dishonest Voter Fraud ‘Sting’ Helped Enable Trump’s ‘Big Lie’
The faux journalist’s election year misadventure targeted Congresswoman Ilhan Omar (D-MN), who conservatives love to hate.
You might have heard of this James O’Keefe. I wrote a piece about him dated January 5, 2018. He claims to be a journalist, but he’s anything but.
O’Keefe’s specialty is to secretly film encounters with liberal groups or individuals and entice them to say or do something revealing or embarrassing that could compromise their liberal agenda…gotcha! This could be an example of sneaky but effective advocacy journalism, but O’Keefe seems unwilling or unable to do the hard work involved in undressing a target, like, say, Mike Wallace of 60 Minutes.
Bad Faith Misrepresentations
Instead, he selectively edits these video encounters in a way that misrepresents the context of the subject’s responses (e.g. editing in answers to questions asked long before) to create a false (and especially dark) narrative of the subject’s intent.
These are widely known as “sting videos.” But O’Keefe’s editing is not even cleverly done. A teenager would know that there’s something rotten in Denmark.
Cashing in on the Grift
O’Keefe caught the attention of Donald Trump in June 2015, days after Trump and his wife descended the escalator to announce a run for president. O’Keefe visited Trump Tower and presented candidate Trump with a “sting video” that allegedly showed a Hillary Clinton campaign worker accepting swag from a Canadian national, a violation of election law that prohibited campaign contributions from foreigners (oh, the irony).
It was small potatoes in typical O’Keefian fashion. But Trump, who never cared much for sophistication or originality, saw a loyal kindred spirit who could pay dividends down the road. Trump donated $10,000 to O’Keefe’s Project Veritas.
Several High-Profile Failures
Like many conservatives, James O’Keefe cashed in during the Trump presidency. A 2018 tax return filed by Project Veritas revealed that O’Keefe was paid an annual salary of $317,000, made possible by donations from prominent conservatives.
That’s not bad for some dude with a camera who has one notch on his belt (ACORN…more about that later) and several high-profile failures: The Washington Post, Planned Parenthood, former Senator Mary Landrieu (D-LA), the New Jersey Teachers Union and National Public Radio, among others.
A Briefcase of Bogus Claims
During the run-up to the 2020 presidential election, James O’Keefe set out to pay Donald Trump back for his largess. The target: Democratic Congresswoman Ilhan Omar from Minnesota. Omar possesses credentials that make most conservatives cringe: First Somali-American and first naturalized citizen from Africa to serve in the US Congress; one of two Muslim women (along with Rashida Tlaib of Michigan) to hold a Congressional seat
Omar became the first woman to wear a hijab on the House floor. She is known to be an outspoken progressive, and occasionally says something that has to be walked back…to the delight of her right-wing enemies.
The events in this story are over a year old, though not widely known. They maintain their relevance because they remain part and parcel of Donald Trump’s false narrative of a stolen election. Trump and conservatives like My Pillow guy Mike Lindell continue to insist that these events are rock-solid proof that widespread voter fraud occurred in Minnesota. That’s their story and they’re sticking to it.
The 16-minute video produced by O’Keefe’s Project Veritas features a man named Liban Osman committing election fraud by hiring people to “harvest ballots” on behalf of Rep. Omar in exchange for payment.
This so-called ballot harvesting occurs when someone collects ballots from the elderly or infirmed or otherwise voters who can’t appear at a polling place or can’t even send their mail-in ballots. It was alleged that Osman gloated about collecting 300 ballots in one day.
First of all, even if these claims were true, high-volume “ballot harvesting” was not illegal in Minnesota. Typically, campaigns were allowed to collect three ballots at a time. But a district court ruling earlier that year, obviously pandemic-induced, permitted the collection of unlimited ballots for over a five-week period spanning July 28 to September 4.
Second, Osman was not working for Rep. Omar, but rather for a city council candidate in Minneapolis. There is no evidence–none, zilch–that links Congresswoman Ilhan Omar to any of these events.
Third, Fox affiliate KMSP based in Minneapolis broadcast an exclusive interview with Osman, who recounted how a man claiming to work for Project Veritas had offered him $10,000 to claim that he was “harvesting ballots” for Omar. Osman said he rejected the offer.
Since various sources spoke to the camera with their faces not shown, O’Keefe’s video relied on a “Project Veritas Insider” to give legitimacy to the voter fraud claims. Viewers were led to believe that the insider–Omar Jamal–was a pillar of the Somalian community: chairman of a Somali watchdog group and a member of the Ramsey County Sheriff’s Department.
The whistleblower’s credentials unraveled rather quickly.
The Daily Dot, a local paper, discovered that the Somali Watchdog Group had just registered its website in late August 2020, when the alleged ballot collection began to take place.
Project Veritas Communication Director Neil McCabe demurred when asked about Jamal’s organization. “I believe he identifies as the chairman of the group,” McCabe answered curtly.
Second, The Ramsy County Sheriff’s Department could not confirm whether Jamal was an employee. The Daily Dot’s repeated requests to department representatives went unreturned.
Third, Jamal’s sketchy past included a claim made by Minnesota Public Radio that he entered the US with a fake passport. When asked about their whistleblower’s criminal past, McCabe waited 15 seconds before answering, “My past, your past…I’m not worried about your past, are you worried about my past?”
Rep. Omar Tweets A Response
Ilhan Omar@IlhanMN “So you’re saying a coordinated misinformation campaign by a known fraud was actually…a fraud?! This is on brand for Trump and his stooges, fraudsters who love concocting desperate racist conspiracies and chaos in an effort to distract the public from their failures.“
Coordinated Disinformation Campaign
With the finished product in his pocket, O’Keefe spent several days on social media hyping the voter fraud claims in his “sting video,” as was his typical practice. His claims gained prominence on several conservative sites, which echoed the allegations and waited with bated breath for its Monday, Sep. 28 release date.
But to the surprise of casual observers, Project Veritas quickly released the video on Sunday, Sep. 27. It turned out that the video was released just hours before the publication of a New York Times investigation into Donald Trump’s taxes. Twitter reported that the voter fraud claims moved quickly into its trending topics alongside the New York Times tax investigation.
The Trumps Get In On the Action
Did the Trump campaign possess the video in advance of the release date? Was it aware of its presence? You tell me.
O’Keefe posted the video on Twitter at exactly 9 pm on the release date. Donald Trump, Jr. tweeted it just seven minutes later. Two minutes after that, the Trump campaign retweeted Junior’s tweet and Trump began commenting.
Notably, Junior’s Twitter post did not have the “from James O’Keefe” label that typically accompanies retweets from users who shared the O’Keefe video. Did Junior already have the video in hand? It sure seems like it.
ACORN: Unfinished Business
There’s no need to recount or relitigate the familiar story of O’Keefe’s coup, supposedly dressed as a pimp but actually dressed in business clothes (he donned the pimp outfit post-production), trying to implicate overworked and baffled staffers from the Association of Community Organizations for Reform Now (ACORN) in criminal activities. The heavily edited videos implied conspiracy.
Despite being exonerated by both the California State Attorney General and the US Government Accountability Office, ACORN ran into a buzz-saw of opposition from Congress, which held some of its purse-strings. It disbanded in 2011.
It seems more appropriate to summarize some of ACORN’s accomplishments: the first successful minimum wage campaigns, getting poor people enrolled in the Earned Income Tax Credit, a successful class action suit and restitution for predatory mortgage lending, the enactment of the National Homestead Act for “urban homesteading,” a federal affordable housing bill sign by President Bush (43) and Project Vote, the most successful low-income voter registration drive in this nation’s history (and a factor in ACORN’s downfall).
Think about all that the next time you see some smart aleck in a fur coat holding a video camera. We still need to hold this guy accountable.
Disclosure: I worked for ACORN for about two years in the late ’70s.