En­deavor to in­fil­trate The Post dated back months

Woman’s de­cep­tion ex­tended to so­cial me­dia, other news out­lets

The Washington Post - - FRONT PAGE - BY BETH REIN­HARD, AARON C. DAVIS AND AN­DREW BA TRAN

The failed ef­fort by con­ser­va­tive ac­tivists to plant a false story about Se­nate can­di­date Roy Moore in The Wash­ing­ton Post was part of a months-long cam­paign to in­fil­trate The Post and other me­dia out­lets in Wash­ing­ton and New York, ac­cord­ing to in­ter­views, text mes­sages and so­cial me­dia posts that have since been deleted.

Start­ing in July, Jaime Phillips, an op­er­a­tive with the or­ga­ni­za­tion Project Ver­i­tas, which pur­ports to ex­pose me­dia bias, joined two dozen net­work­ing groups re­lated to ei­ther jour­nal­ism or left­lean­ing pol­i­tics. She signed up to at­tend 15 re­lated events, of­ten ac­com­pa­nied by a male com­pan­ion, and ap­peared at least twice at gath­er­ings for depart­ing Post staffers.

Phillips, 41, pre­sented her­self to jour­nal­ists var­i­ously as the owner of a start-up look­ing to re­cruit writ­ers, a grad­u­ate stu­dent study­ing na­tional se­cu­rity or a con­trac­tor new to the area. This sum­mer, she tweeted posts in sup­port of gun con­trol and crit­i­cal of Trump’s crack­down on il­le­gal im­mi­grants — a de­par­ture from the spring

when, on ac­counts that have since been deleted, she used the #MAGA hashtag and mocked the Women’s March on Wash­ing­ton that fol­lowed Trump’s in­au­gu­ra­tion as the “Mi­dol March.”

Her true iden­tity and in­ten­tions were re­vealed only when The Post pub­lished a story on Mon­day, along with photos and video, about how she falsely told Post re­porters that Moore had im­preg­nated her when she was a teenager. The Post re­ported that Phillips ap­peared to work for Project Ver­i­tas, an or­ga­ni­za­tion that uses false cover sto­ries and covert video record­ings in an at­tempt to em­bar­rass its tar­gets.

Phillips’s sus­tained at­tempt to in­sin­u­ate her­self into the so­cial cir­cles of re­porters makes clear that her de­cep­tion — and the ef­forts to dis­credit The Post’s re­port­ing — went much fur­ther than the at­tempt to plant one fab­ri­cated ar­ti­cle.

Phillips’s en­coun­ters with dozens of jour­nal­ists, which have not been pre­vi­ously re­ported, typ­i­cally oc­curred at pro­fes­sional net­work­ing events or con­grat­u­la­tory send-offs for col­leagues at bars and restau­rants. She used three names and three phone num­bers to fol­low up with Post em­ploy­ees, chat­ting about life in Wash­ing­ton and ask­ing to be in­tro­duced to other jour­nal­ists.

In one case, Phillips kept a con­ver­sa­tion go­ing for five weeks with a Post em­ployee over text mes­sage, re­peat­edly ask­ing whether she and her hus­band could meet Phillips for din­ner. Af­ter the em­ployee shared that she was ex­pe­ri­enc­ing a fam­ily tragedy, Phillips wrote: “Let me know if I can do any­thing to help, even if just to talk or some­thing small. We’d like to send flow­ers or a do­na­tion… Thoughts & prayers.”

Phillips did not re­spond to mes­sages seek­ing com­ment Wed­nes­day.

Asked to com­ment on Phillips’s min­gling with em­ploy­ees of The Post and other news or­ga­ni­za­tions over the past few months, Project Ver­i­tas co-founder James O’Keefe said, “I can’t give up the iden­tity of my sources, no more than you can dis­close the iden­tity of your anony­mous sources.”

Post re­porters watched as Phillips walked into Project Ver­i­tas’s of­fice in Ma­maro­neck, N.Y., Mon­day morn­ing, five days af­ter pre­sent­ing her with doc­u­ments that raised doubts about her mo­ti­va­tions in mak­ing claims against Moore.

Project Ver­i­tas and O’Keefe have de­clined to say whether she is an em­ployee. But af­ter The Post pub­lished its story on Mon­day, O’Keefe ap­peared to in­di­rectly con­firm the con­nec­tion in a fundrais­ing ap­peal, say­ing an op­er­a­tive “em­bed­ded” with The Post had “had their cover blown.”

Also since the pub­li­ca­tion of the story, jour­nal­ists in New York and Wash­ing­ton said they rec­og­nized Phillips as some­one who had at­tended at least seven so­cial gath­er­ings in re­cent months.

Be­fore go­ing un­der­cover, Phillips worked in the loan in­dus­try in Ge­or­gia and Mary­land, ac­cord­ing to a data­base run by the Na­tion­wide Multistate Li­cens­ing Sys­tem. Mary­land-based NFM Lend­ing con­firmed that she was em­ployed there un­til the sum­mer of 2016.

She was an out­spo­ken con­ser­va­tive, do­nat­ing $400 to Trump’s cam­paign last year, records show, and ap­pear­ing in a pic­ture on Twit­ter the day af­ter the elec­tion smil­ing and stand­ing next to a man with a Trump cam­paign sign. On a now-deleted Periscope ac­count, she posted video of her­self mock­ing the women’s protest fol­low­ing Trump’s in­au­gu­ra­tion.

She tweeted un­der the han­dle @JaimeTen­nille, pro­mot­ing a va­ri­ety of right-lean­ing posts, and for a time her name dis­played as Jaime Pres­i­den­tTrump. Her pro­file in­cluded hash­tags #MAGA!!! and #DrainTheSwamp.

In April, she tweeted the hashtag #VeryFakeNews with a link about CNN, and she retweeted a post from O’Keefe. She later changed her Twit­ter han­dle to @Covfefe2S­coops and her user­name to “J’aime Covfefe” af­ter Trump in May tweeted the typo.

She said in a post­ing on Go­FundMe.com in May that she had been laid off from her job in the mort­gage busi­ness and was mov­ing to New York to take down the “lib­eral MSM.” Project Ver­i­tas had posted on its Face­book page two months ear­lier that it was seek­ing to hire 12 “un­der­cover jour­nal­ists.”

Soon, Phillips be­gan build­ing a new on­line per­sona. She changed the cover art on her Face­book pro­file to a pic­ture of John F. Kennedy. She cre­ated a new Twit­ter ac­count fea­tur­ing the slo­gan “Love not hate makes Amer­ica great.” She started a new Periscope ac­count us­ing hash­tags show­ing sup­port for lib­eral protests. In a Face­book post on July 16, she wrote that she was leav­ing At­lanta to move to the Wash­ing­ton area to work for a “peace build­ing” or­ga­ni­za­tion.

Her orig­i­nal so­cial me­dia ac­counts were even­tu­ally erased — and the ac­counts with the left­lean­ing sen­ti­ments were deleted af­ter The Post pub­lished its story Mon­day.

The Post re­cov­ered the post­ings via the In­ter­net Archive and Google’s cache. Other im­ages of her so­cial me­dia ac­counts were cap­tured as they were be­ing deleted Tues­day night.

For two weeks in July, early in her time in the Dis­trict, Phillips rented a base­ment apart­ment in the Capitol Hill home of Brad Wood­house, the for­mer com­mu­ni­ca­tions direc­tor for the Demo­cratic Na­tional Com­mit­tee. Wood­house was pres­i­dent of the lib­eral group Amer­i­cans United for Change when it was tar­geted in a Project Ver­i­tas video re­leased days be­fore the 2016 elec­tion.

He said in an in­ter­view that he rec­og­nized his for­mer ten­ant while read­ing The Post’s story Mon­day. He also pro­vided The Post with a record of Phillips’s Airbnb book­ing, which in­cluded her name and her photo.

“I was stunned,” Wood­house said Tues­day night. “It took a lit­tle while to sink in and then it was like, ‘Re­ally? Are you kid­ding me?’ ”

One of the first me­dia gath­er­ings at­tended by Phillips ap­pears to be a July 20 gath­er­ing of the D.C. chap­ter of the On­line News As­so­ci­a­tion at Union Drinkery, an event that was hosted by Tauhid Chap­pell, a so­cial me­dia pro­ducer The Post.

Phillips in­tro­duced her­self as “Jaime Tay­lor,” Chap­pell said, and told him that she and her brother were hop­ing to launch a news web­site that would el­e­vate “true news” above less sub­stan­tia­tive sto­ries.

They ex­changed num­bers. Five days later, Phillips texted Chap­pell and asked whether he knew any sim­i­lar net­work­ing groups in New York. “I can use all the help & ad­vice I can get!” she texted.

He didn’t hear from her again un­til Aug. 24, when she said she was back in Wash­ing­ton and meet­ing a friend at Maddy’s Tap­room, around the cor­ner from The Post’s K Street of­fice.

“Ap­par­ently there’s a WaPo thing go­ing on here tonight, made me think of you,” Phillips wrote.

Chap­pell did not re­spond. That night, dozens of Post em­ploy­ees were at the bar and restau­rant for si­mul­ta­ne­ous go­ing-away par­ties for Emily Chow, a design edi­tor, and Michael Cot­ter­man, an ad­min­is­tra­tive ser­vices man­ager.

Melissa McCul­lough, who as direc­tor of news­room op­er­a­tions over­sees ad­min­is­tra­tive ser­vices in­clud­ing news­room work spa­ces, equip­ment and sup­plies, was a host of the party. She said Wed­nes­day that a woman ap­proached her, men­tioned that ev­ery­one seemed to be hav­ing fun and asked where the group worked. Phillips in­tro­duced her­self as sim­ply “Jaime,” a con­trac­tor vis­it­ing the area, McCul­lough said.

Phillips iden­ti­fied a man with her as her new boyfriend who was tak­ing a job in New York, McCul­lough said. The cou­ple lin­gered for hours, stay­ing af­ter most oth­ers had cleared out and even as McCul­lough bought din­ner for one of the depart­ing staffers and paid the tab.

Over the night, McCul­lough re­called, the two made small talk, ask­ing about where to go in Wash­ing­ton, which sports bar would be show­ing a pay-per-view boxing match that week­end, and about restau­rant rec­om­men­da­tions.

McCul­lough said: “Ev­ery now and then, she would in­ter­ject with pol­i­tics and ev­ery­thing go­ing on, and ques­tions like, ‘What’s it like at The Post?’ ”

Phillips, an­other Post staffer re­called, some­times stood tightly against the man she was with, a bag over her shoul­der, pinned be­tween them.

In one of those mo­ments, the man asked McCul­lough about Trump, McCul­lough said.

“Let’s just hope he doesn’t get re­elected in an­other 3 years ... just my take,” McCul­lough said, ac­cord­ing to a video of the en­counter se­cretly recorded and re­leased Wed­nes­day by Project Ver­i­tas.

On Sept. 24, re­porters for the New York Times, McClatchy News, Bloomberg BNA, the Cen­ter for Pub­lic In­tegrity, among other me­dia out­lets, spoke with Phillips at a gath­er­ing of in­ves­tiga­tive re­porters at a Wash­ing­ton bar, ac­cord­ing to five jour­nal­ists who at­tended.

Emily Good­ell, who was be­gin­ning a six-month re­port­ing in­tern­ship at the Stu­dent Press Law Cen­ter, ended up spend­ing more than four hours with Phillips, she said.

“I de­cided to go to net­work­ing events, look­ing to meet peo­ple and make con­nec­tions . . . That’s how I ended up at an In­ves­tiga­tive Re­porters and Ed­i­tors happy hour meetup on Sept. 14. That’s how I came to meet Jaime Phillips, al­though she in­tro­duced her­self to me un­der a false name: Jaime Tay­lor,” Good­ell wrote in a blog post about the en­counter pub­lished Wed­nes­day evening on the law cen­ter’s web­site.

In an in­ter­view Tues­day, Good­ell, 21, said Phillips had a list of jour­nal­ists she wanted to meet, and Good­ell helped her find them.

“She was al­ways ask­ing ques­tions,” Good­ell wrote. “She asked me about be­ing a reporter, about pol­i­tics, about what I thought about the news. I didn’t think any­thing of her line of ques­tion­ing. The bar was filled with re­porters from The Wash­ing­ton Post, At­lantic Me­dia, CNN, the New York Times, The Wall Street Jour­nal and other news or­ga­ni­za­tions.”

Among the jour­nal­ists present at a din­ner af­ter­ward were Good­ell, McClatchy data reporter Ben Wieder and re­porters from Bloomberg BNA and the Cen­ter for Pub­lic In­tegrity, Wieder and Good­ell said. The group had a late-night din­ner of boozy milk­shakes and burg­ers at Ted’s Bul­letin on 14th Street NW.

Wieder said he at­tends such events reg­u­larly. “I go to be able to meet other peo­ple in the in­dus­try whose by­lines I’ve read, which has helped me get jobs and de­velop my skills,” he said. “I worry that this sort of thing will cre­ate a lit­tle bit of a chill­ing ef­fect, that peo­ple might be wor­ried and more cauat tious if they are at a happy hour.”

Good­ell has also been think­ing about how it could have turned out worse.

“I didn’t think about our in­ter­ac­tion again un­til I read The Post ar­ti­cle Tues­day morn­ing. I’ve been rack­ing my brain since. Noth­ing came out of my in­ter­ac­tion with her, but now my mind is in­un­dated with all the things that could have hap­pened.”

On. Sept. 18, Phillips ap­peared at a go­ing-away party for Jia Lynn Yang, a na­tional se­cu­rity edi­tor who was leav­ing for the New York Times, at the restau­rant Penn­syl­va­nia 6, near The Post. Post reporter Dan Lamothe said Phillips in­tro­duced her­self as a Johns Hop­kins grad­u­ate stu­dent. She asked about cov­er­ing the Pen­tagon and his opin­ion of De­fense Sec­re­tary Jim Mat­tis, Lamothe said.

Phillips sent Lamothe an email the fol­low­ing day.

“I checked out your Twit­ter & some of your ar­ti­cles you've writ­ten and I have to say I re­ally ap­pre­ci­ate read­ing your per­spec­tive on de­fense is­sues, es­pe­cially Mat­tis in par­tic­u­lar,” wrote Phillips, who gave her name as Jaime Gib­son.

She sug­gested he could help her fo­cus her re­search and asked whether they could meet for drinks or lunch. Lamothe did not re­spond.

Lamothe said he had not re­al­ized he was be­ing se­cretly filmed un­til snip­pets of the bar­room con­ver­sa­tion sur­faced in a video posted Mon­day by Project Ver­i­tas. In the video, Phillips is not seen but she is iden­ti­fied as “PV JOUR­NAL­IST #1.”

“Democ­racy dies in dark­ness, right?” she says at one point, re­fer­ring to The Post’s slo­gan. A man ac­com­pa­ny­ing Phillips, iden­ti­fied in the video as “PV JOUR­NAL­IST #2,” asked Lamothe ques­tions about The Post’s opin­ion writ­ers.

On the video, Lamothe ex­pressed dis­may at some of The Post’s opin­ion writ­ing.

On Wed­nes­day, Lamothe said: “I re­gret be­ing so open with strangers, and that’s the big les­son I’ve learned here. I’m gen­er­ally an open, friendly per­son, but I need to be more cau­tious.”

Project Ver­i­tas also posted video from an­other farewell gath­er­ing that week for Post reporter Thomas Gib­bons-Neff on Sept. 21 at Post Pub, a nearby bar. Na­tional se­cu­rity reporter Adam En­tous said he did not know that he was be­ing video­taped when he was ap­proached by two men who de­scribed them­selves as aspiring doc­u­men­tary film­mak­ers in­ter­ested in do­ing a project on The Post.

On a video re­leased by Project Ver­i­tas, En­tous said it has not been proved that Trump col­luded with Rus­sia.

An­other Post reporter, Matt Zapotosky, said the men in­tro­duced them­selves as Karl Bradley and Michael Condon. The man iden­ti­fied as Bradley fol­lowed up with an email to Zapotosky a few days later. “Won­der­ing if you might have time this week to grab a drink; would love to pick your brain some more for this project I was telling you about,” he wrote.

Zapotosky re­ferred him to The Post’s pub­lic re­la­tions depart­ment.

Bradley pitched a pro­posed biopic on the for­mer Post reporter Mur­rey Marder, known for his hard-hit­ting cov­er­age of Joseph R. McCarthy’s anti-com­mu­nist cru­sade. “It’s be­ing de­scribed as “All the Pres­i­dent’s Men” meets “Good Night and Good Luck,” he wrote to the pub­lic re­la­tions team. Marder died in 2013.

The pub­lic re­la­tions team de­clined to par­tic­i­pate.

OB­TAINED BY THE WASH­ING­TON POST

Jaime Phillips, cen­ter, an op­er­a­tive with Project Ver­i­tas, at­tended a jour­nal­ism meetup in New York in Au­gust, among other gath­er­ings.

OB­TAINED BY THE WASH­ING­TON POST

Jaime Phillips, cen­ter, gave her name as Jaime Tay­lor while at­tend­ing a meetup for en­tre­pre­neur­ial jour­nal­ism at the City Univer­sity of New York’s Grad­u­ate School of Jour­nal­ism in Au­gust.

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