American muckrakers: Peter Schweizer, James O'Keefe and a rightwing full court press

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American muckrakers: Peter Schweizer, James O’Keefe and a rightwing full court press
© Provided by The Guardian Photograph: Lintao Zhang/AP

The official investigation of Hunter Biden’s dealings in China and elsewhere rests in the hands of David Weiss, a Trump-appointed federal prosecutor in Delaware, and the US justice department under Joe Biden’s attorney general, Merrick Garland. Politically speaking, we now have Red-Handed by Peter Schweizer, who would very much like to help us digest the business past of the 46th president’s troublesome son.

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Related: Clinton Cash: errors dog Bill and Hillary exposé – but is there any ‘there’ there?

Schweizer’s works include Clinton Cash, a compendium of opposition research that helped shape the presidential election in 2016. These days, he is president of the Government Accountability Institute, a think tank funded by the Mercer family, part of the rightwing ecosystem.

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Rebekah Mercer chairs the GAI board, a position previously held by Steve Bannon, whom Donald Trump pardoned of fraud charges but who is now under indictment for contempt of Congress. Mercer is also a founding investor in Parler, a rightwing alternative to Twitter and communications vehicle for Trump’s faithful in the run-up to the 6 January insurrection.

The Mercers are mainstays of Breitbart News and once funded James O’Keefe’s Project Veritas – of which, more later. Via Cambridge Analytica, the Mercers helped hijack Brexit. Not surprisingly, Nigel Farage counts the Mercers as allies.

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If Republicans recapture the House in November, as expected, most see investigations of Hunter Biden and his father an inevitable sequel. Schweizer has published a roadmap, from sources including Secret Service travel logs, materials from former business associates and that infamous laptop.

Schweizer argues that the rich and powerful have grown too cozy with China, at the expense of their own country. His central contention is that the Biden family garnered approximately $31m from individuals with direct ties to Chinese intelligence.

Hunter Biden has denied wrongdoing. In 2020, Politifact said Schweizer’s claims about Joe Biden did “not add up to a picture” of his “being corrupt or pursuing policies contrary to the national interest”.

American muckrakers: Peter Schweizer, James O’Keefe and a rightwing full court press
© Provided by The Guardian Peter Schweizer speaks at CPAC in 2016. Photograph: Gage Skidmore/Alamy

Schweizer, however, fires shots across the political spectrum. John Boehner, a Republican speaker of the House, and Henry Kissinger, secretary of state to two Republican presidents, are in his sights. So are the Bushes. Chuck Schumer, Mark Warner, Chris Coons and Joe Manchin, all Democratic senators, are praised.

Schweizer lambasts Silicon Valley for enabling China’s rise and turning a blind eye to human rights abuses. Elon Musk and Bill Gates are criticized, Wall Street (prominently Goldman Sachs, Blackstone and Black Rock), the National Basketball Association and academe too. Yale University receives particular attention.

Not surprisingly, Schweizer does not consider links to China enjoyed by Trump and his most ardent followers. He ignores, for example, tax records that show Trump International Hotels Management paid more than $188,000 in China while pursuing licensing deals between 2013 and 2015, and maintained a bank account there.

Likewise, Schweizer looks away from Ted Cruz. The Texas senator’s wife is a banker at Goldman. The Cruzes hold direct investments of between $15,000 and $50,000 in the Goldman Sachs China Equity Fund Class P, a mutual fund with positions in Alibaba and Tencent – companies firmly in Schweizer’s sights.

Then again, the Mercers are Cruz donors. In 2016, Cruz’s presidential campaign was a Cambridge Analytica client.

Schweizer calls for a US lobbying ban on companies linked to the Chinese military and Chinese intelligence, and their exclusion from US stock exchanges. He also demands the press pursue big tech involvement with China.

As models for how to resist the Chinese, he holds out Peter Thiel and his company Palantir. Thiel, a rightwing megadonor, gained notoriety when he wrote in 2009 that women and minorities had mucked up democratic capitalism. A Palantir employee planted the concept of data harvesting with Cambridge Analytica.

Related: The scandal that wasn’t: Republicans deflated as nation shrugs at Hunter Biden revelations

As for China’s territorial ambitions? In another book, Trump was quoted by the Washington Post’s Josh Rogin. If the Chinese were to invade Taiwan, he told a senator, “there isn’t a fucking thing we can do”.

It seems unlikely the US could be capable of decoupling its economy from China while avoiding clashes. China’s opacity with regard to Covid does not instill confidence. Schweizer’s book does at least deliver food for thought.

‘Free speech for me …’

If Red-Handed is an amalgam of more than 1,100 footnotes, facts, arguments and innuendos, American Muckraker by James O’Keefe, the founder of Project Veritas, is a 288-page exercise in self-reverence.

“The American Muckraker understands that the path to truth involves suffering and sacrifice,” O’Keefe writes. OK. Elsewhere, he compares his plight to that of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) in Alabama in the late 1950s, as it worked for “equality”. Really. He also repeatedly refers to Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn, the great Russian dissident.

What does O’Keefe do for a living? Mostly, he makes sting videos targeting Democrats and progressives. Targets have included Planned Parenthood and a teachers’ union.

Practically speaking, American Muckraker is O’Keefe’s attempt to bolster his claim of being a journalist while re-defining what the media actually is in an era of cold civil war. On that note, he recounts a conversation with Brian Karem after the Playboy White House reporter had a dust-up with a Trump loyalist, Sebastian Gorka.

“I’m on the same team as you,” said O’Keefe. “I respect you guys.”

Really? Project Veritas counts the Donald J Trump Foundation among past donors and Erik Prince, former head of the Blackwater private security company and brother of Trump’s education secretary, Betsy DeVos, was involved in its sting operations against Trump adversaries. O’Keefe makes clear he is not keen on a shedding a light on those who fund his work.

American muckrakers: Peter Schweizer, James O’Keefe and a rightwing full court press
© Provided by The Guardian James O’Keefe speaks at CPAC in 2021. Photograph: Octavio Jones/Reuters

He does have a genuine grievance. In early November 2021, the FBI raided his apartment, handcuffed him in his underwear and seized two phones. He was not arrested.

Reportedly, the feds swooped in connection with the disappearance and unauthorized publication of a diary kept by Ashley Biden, the president’s daughter. Project Veritas never wrote anything on the topic and handed the document over. The justice department had placed the first amendment and O’Keefe’s civil liberties in its crosshairs, notwithstanding a court-ordered warrant.

But that is only part of the story. In 2020, O’Keefe sued the New York Times for libel in connection with its coverage of videos concerning alleged voter fraud in Minnesota. A New York judge refused to dismiss the suit and O’Keefe has obtained an injunction that bars the paper from publishing documents written by a Project Veritas lawyer.

O’Keefe’s mantra might be: “Free speech for me – but not for thee.”

Despite the efforts of Richard Nixon in the case of the Pentagon Papers, prior restraint remains anathema to a free press – as Donald Trump’s late brother, Robert, learned when he failed to block publication of a niece’s tell-all.

Nonetheless, Trump allies are urging the supreme court to reconsider protections afforded to the media under US libel law. Clarence Thomas and Neil Gorsuch have indicated they are willing. The fact that the decision in question was rendered by a unanimous court a half-century ago means little. American Muckraker is a book for such troubled times.

  • Red-Handed: How American Elites Get Rich Helping China Win is published in the US by Harper. American Muckraker: Rethinking Journalism for the 21st Century is published by Post Hill Press

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