WASHINGTON — A network of conservative activists, aided by a British former spy, mounted a campaign during the Trump administration to discredit perceived enemies of former president Donald Trump inside the government, according to documents and people involved in the operations.
The campaign included a planned sting operation against Trump’s national security adviser at the time, H.R. McMaster, and secret surveillance operations against FBI employees, aimed at exposing anti-Trump sentiment in the bureau’s ranks.
The operations against the FBI, run by the conservative group Project Veritas, were conducted from a large home in the Georgetown section of Washington that rented for $10,000 per month. Female undercover operatives arranged dates with the FBI employees with the aim of secretly recording them making disparaging comments about Trump.
The campaign shows the obsession that some of Trump’s allies had about a shadowy “deep state” trying to blunt his agenda — and the lengths that some were willing to go to try to purge the government of those believed to be disloyal to the president.
Central to the effort, according to interviews, was Richard Seddon, a former undercover British spy who was recruited in 2016 by security contractor Erik Prince to train Project Veritas operatives to infiltrate trade unions, Democratic congressional campaigns, and other targets. He ran field operations for Project Veritas until mid-2018.
Last year, the New York Times reported that Seddon ran an expansive effort to gain access to the unions and campaigns and led a hiring effort that nearly tripled the number of the group’s operatives, according to interviews and deposition testimony. He trained operatives at the Prince family ranch in Wyoming.
The efforts to target American officials show how a campaign once focused on exposing outside organizations slowly morphed into an operation to ferret out Trump’s perceived enemies in the government’s ranks.
Whether any of Trump’s White House advisers had direct knowledge of the campaign is unclear, but one of the participants in the operation against McMaster, Barbara Ledeen, said she was brought on by someone “with access to McMaster’s calendar.”
At the time, Ledeen was a staff member of the Senate Judiciary Committee, then led by Senator Chuck Grassley, Republican of Iowa.
This account is drawn from more than a dozen interviews with former Project Veritas employees and others familiar with the campaign, along with current and former government officials and internal Project Veritas documents.
The scheme against McMaster, revealed in interviews and documents, was one of the most brazen operations of the campaign. It involved a plan to hire a woman armed with a hidden camera to capture McMaster making inappropriate remarks that his opponents could use as leverage to get him ousted as national security adviser.
Although several Project Veritas operatives were involved in the plot, it is unclear whether the group directed it. The group, which is a nonprofit, has a history of conducting sting operations on news organizations, Democratic politicians, and advocacy groups.
The operation was ultimately abandoned in March 2018 when the conspirators ended up getting what they wanted, albeit by different means. The embattled McMaster resigned on March 22, a move that avoided a firing by the president who had soured on the three-star general.
Project Veritas did not respond to specific questions about the operations. On Thursday, James O’Keefe, the head of the group, said this article was “a smear piece.”
Neither Seddon nor Prince responded to requests for comment. McMaster declined to comment.
When confronted with details about her involvement in the McMaster operation, Ledeen insisted that she was merely a messenger. “I am not part of a plot,” she said.
The operation against McMaster was hatched not long after an article appeared in BuzzFeed News about a private dinner in 2017. Exactly what happened during the dinner is in dispute, but the article said that McMaster had disparaged Trump by calling him an “idiot” with the intelligence of a “kindergartner.”
That dinner, at an upscale restaurant in downtown Washington, was attended by McMaster and Safra Catz, the chief executive of Oracle, as well as two of their aides. Not long after, Catz called Donald McGahn, then the White House counsel, to complain about McMaster’s behavior, according to two people familiar with the call.
White House officials investigated and could not substantiate her claims, people familiar with their inquiry said. Catz declined to comment, and there is no evidence that she played any role in the plot against McMaster.
Soon after the BuzzFeed article, however, the scheme developed to try to entrap McMaster: Recruit a woman to stake out the same restaurant, Tosca, with a hidden camera. According to the plan, whenever McMaster returned by himself, the woman would strike up a conversation with him and, over drinks, try to get him to make comments that could be used to either force him to resign or get him fired.
Who initially ordered the operation is unclear. In an interview, Ledeen said “someone she trusted” contacted her to help with the plan. She said she could not remember who.
“Somebody who had his calendar conveyed to me that he goes to Tosca all the time,” she said of McMaster.