WASHINGTON – Conservative activist James O’Keefe, whose undercover videos brought down ACORN and embarrassed National Public Radio, came to Washington Tuesday to unveil evidence of “illegal activity conducted by high-level employees within Hillary Clinton’s presidential campaign.”
He then rolled tape of … a Canadian woman attempting to buy a T-shirt and some campaign pins at a Clinton rally. To O’Keefe, this was evidence of foreign contributions being made to Clinton – an “illegal activity” with a total value of $75.
Many of the 50 reporters who showed up at the National Press Club for this unveiling felt as if they had been punked.
“My first reaction is this is about buying a T-shirt,” said one. “It doesn’t seem like much of a bombshell.”
Digital Access for only $0.99
For the most comprehensive local coverage, subscribe today.
“Is this the best thing you have?” I asked O’Keefe.
“Is this a joke?” inquired Olivia Nuzzi of the Daily Beast. “This feels like a prank. … We’re talking about buying campaign swag.”
But O’Keefe was serious: “This is just the beginning! We’ve got more!”
Next installment: O’Keefe catches a Mexican national buying a Clinton sweatshirt?
As with much of the product generated by the anti-Clinton scandal mill, the merit of the allegations doesn’t really matter. What’s important is that the constant stream of accusations further the notion that Clinton is corrupt.
Sometimes they are sinister (she murdered Vince Foster!), sometimes they are nonsensical (she ordered the military not to rescue those Americans in Benghazi!), sometimes they are legitimate (her boneheaded use of a private email server as secretary of state) and sometimes they are silly (her staff sold a T-shirt to a foreigner!). It doesn’t matter. The constant production of scandal accusations – facilitated by Clinton’s reflexive secrecy – is successful. A poll by Quinnipiac University released last week found that the top three words voters associate with Clinton are “liar,” “dishonest” and “untrustworthy.”
Even in the anything-goes world of the Clinton scandal industry, though, O’Keefe’s latest exercise suggests that her accusers are running out of ammunition. O’Keefe’s video did show evidence of law-breaking – by his own organization. In the brief clip, an unidentified woman who calls herself a Canadian tries to buy Clinton merchandise at a campaign event tent and is told that foreign nationals can’t contribute. O’Keefe’s videographer then steps in and offers to buy the merchandise for the Canadian, who would pay her back.
“It was a conduit donation, which was a crime,” O’Keefe proclaimed to his press club audience.
Umm. So if it was a crime for the Clinton campaign to receive this “contribution,” wasn’t it also a crime for O’Keefe’s “journalist” to take a foreigner’s cash and hand it over to the campaign?
I put the question to O’Keefe, who called his lawyer to the microphone. “It’s a technical violation of the law,” the lawyer, Benjamin Barr, admitted. “It’s akin to jaywalking.” (O’Keefe’s methods have been in doubt before: He paid $100,000 to settle a lawsuit by an ACORN worker years after that expose.)
It’s unclear whether a purchase of campaign swag by a foreign national would violate campaign-finance laws under any circumstance. But it’s absolutely clear that the sort of violation alleged by O’Keefe would never be enforced.
Nor could it be, because O’Keefe’s shirt-gate case unraveled quickly under questioning at his news conference. He didn’t know the identity of the Canadian, he said, or even if she really was Canadian. His “journalist” who facilitated the transaction gave the Clinton campaign a fake name, and O’Keefe wouldn’t identify the videographer. He also had no plans to report the supposed violation by the Clinton campaign to the Federal Election Commission.
In the video, O’Keefe’s group asserts that its undercover videographer just happened to meet a Canadian in line at a Clinton event, and that this Canadian just happened to volunteer her nationality before asking if she could buy merchandise. The video makes the point that “just minutes after this illegal exchange” involving the T-shirt, Clinton was on stage talking about “the endless flow of secret unaccountable money that is distorting our elections.” There is indeed too much money corrupting politics – but a $75 campaign-swag purchase by a person who may or may not be Canadian would not seem to be high on the list of abuses.
But O’Keefe had achieved his purpose. “It’s going viral,” he said, noting that “it’s in the Washington Post right now.”
It was, under this headline at that time: “New James O’Keefe video sting catches Clinton campaign being kind to a Canadian.”
Follow Dana Milbank on Twitter @Milbank.