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In New Political Warfare, 'Armies Of Video Trackers' Swarm Candidates

TERRY GROSS, HOST:

This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross. In this election year, when we've come to expect the unexpected, here's another example. A conservative activist known for targeting candidates and groups he considers liberal, including the group ACORN, by secretly taping them in his sting operations, has managed to sting himself by accidentally recording a strategy session of his own group.

The story of James O'Keefe and his group, Project Veritas, is told in The New Yorker by our guest staff writer Jane Mayer. Mayer writes that negative campaigning, long a staple of American politics, is becoming more sophisticated, more aggressive and better funded, often by donors who manage to remain anonymous.

Jane Mayer has been writing for The New Yorker since 1995 covering politics, culture and national security. She's also the author of the best-seller "Dark Money: The Hidden History Of The Billionaires Behind The Rise Of The Radical Right." She spoke with FRESH AIR contributor Dave Davies.

DAVE DAVIES, BYLINE: Well, Jane Mayer, welcome back to FRESH AIR. You write about an attempt to run an undercover operation to get damaging information about the Open Society Foundations. That's an organization associated with George Soros, who funds a lot of liberal causes. What does this organization do, first of all?

JANE MAYER: Well, it supports democracy programs in open societies all around the world. But in America, it's become a target of the right wing because George Soros, who's a hedge fund billionaire, also is one of the biggest supporters of Hillary Clinton's campaign. And so he's been a big Democratic Party donor and also a donor to super PACs.

So he's become kind of the, in the eyes of some of the right, sort of the evil manipulator who's pushing liberalism in America.

DAVIES: And Dana Geraghty, who helps run programs for this organization, gets a seven-minute voicemail. Tell us what happened.

MAYER: Well, so in March, Dana Geraghty, who works for the Open Society Foundations in a role overseeing programs in Eurasia, actually, got a fishy-sounding phone call, she thought. It was from someone who said that he wanted to support the work that George Soros does. But she was listening to a voicemail message she had, and she noticed it went strangely on and on and on.

And so she clicked on it, and she listens. And this man named Victor Kesh first says he wants to aid and help in the work that they do. But then, oddly, the whole tone changed. And it became clear that he forgot to hang up when he called her.

And what she next found herself listening to was the same man talking to a roomful of people explaining a plan that sounded like an effort to infiltrate the Open Society institute and do some kind of underhanded sting on it.

DAVIES: So we eventually learn it's not Victor Kesh. Who is it? What's happened here?

MAYER: The man who called claiming to be Victor Kesh was actually an operative from the right, a political sort of prankster and dirty trickster named James O'Keefe, who fancies himself to be an investigative reporter, but who's he's become infamous for running undercover stings where he pretends to be someone else and entraps people into saying embarrassing things and exposing themselves to legal problems.

DAVIES: O'Keefe has made news in the past on a number of occasions. Remind us of some of, you know, his more well-known efforts.

MAYER: Well, he probably became known nationally for the first time in 2009 when he and a friend did a sting operation on ACORN, which was a liberal community organizing group. And they dressed themselves or pretended to be involved in child prostitution. James O'Keefe pretended that he was a pimp, and he brought a young woman who he claimed was underage and a prostitute.

And he went to ACORN offices around the country getting advice on how they could appear to make their illegal operation look legal. And what they did, meanwhile, was they videotaped this secretly, these meetings with officials, and got footage that made the officials appear to condone these illegal activities.

When they exposed the video, and they gave it to Breitbart and other conservative news organizations, it created a tremendous furor. There were congressional hearings, the House of Representatives cut off funding to ACORN. The organization collapsed in scandal. And only later did it come out that many of the videotapes had been misleadingly portrayed by O'Keefe.

And in fact, one of the people that he videotaped sued him successfully later saying he'd given - not given his permission to be videotaped and, in fact, had called the police after O'Keefe presented himself as this illegal pimp and that O'Keefe had never called him back to even find out that he'd called the police.

So basically, that sting in 2009 made O'Keefe a national figure in American politics sort of on the cutting edge of political dirty tricks. And it made him both a kind of a hero to the right and a point of concern for journalists, since he said he was a journalist, and also a subject of a lot of criticism from the left.

DAVIES: And he's had other efforts since then.

MAYER: I mean, in 2010, his methods ended up with him being arrested by the FBI because he and some of his confederates entered the Senate office of Mary Landrieu, the Democratic senator from Louisiana, under false pretenses. And they wound up - he wound up being sentenced to serve three years of probation and do a hundred hours of community service and pay a $1,500 fine.

And then in 2011, he emerged to do yet another undercover video sting, this time of National Public Radio. And it too ended up with all kinds of controversy. But it took down with it as a kind of a result Vivian Schiller, who'd been the chief executive of National Public Radio at the time. In that sting, O'Keefe pretended to - he got his confederates to pretend to be some kind of Arab organization that offered $5 million to NPR executives in exchange, supposedly, for positive coverage of Islam.

And while the NPR executives never promised anything, the chitter chatter that they made while they were being unknown to them, videotaped, came out to be embarrassing enough that it caused a scandal.

DAVIES: And again, in that case, once people listen to the full unedited video, it emerged that the original presentation of it had been edited in misleading ways.

MAYER: And that was the - that was the verdict, not just of liberals and press experts, but interestingly, Glenn Beck, the conservative talk show host, had his own producer take a very close look at the tape. And Glenn Beck's producer came out and said he thought that they were very misleadingly edited and gave a false impression.

But by then, NPR had already asked for the resignation of its chief executive officer and another official at NPR.

DAVIES: OK, so that's James O'Keefe. And so now let's return to this incident that you describe in your piece. The Open Society Foundations, which supports pro-democracy efforts around the world, they get this seven-minute voicemail from O'Keefe professing to be somebody else. Why don't we listen to, like, the first minute of this now?

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

JAMES O'KEEFE: Hey, Dana, my name is Victor Kesh. I'm a Hungarian-American who represents a foundation. And I'm interested in - particularly in Central European issues. And I'm representing a foundation that would like to get involved with you guys and aid what you do in fighting for European values and some other issues.

We wanted to know if there's a point of contact at Open Society that I could talk to about supporting you guys and coordinating with you on some of your efforts. I'm an American citizen but - dual citizenship, Hungarian-American, who wants to aid. And give me a call back when you can. Thank you.

Don't say anything before I hang up the phone. So what needs to happen - (unintelligible) - what needs to happen is someone other than me make a hundred phone calls like that.

DAVIES: And that's the conservative activist James O'Keefe in a long voicemail left with the Open Society Foundations. You can hear the full seven minutes at The New Yorker website. And what we hear there, Jane Mayer, is that he doesn't realize that he didn't hang up.

And he's beginning to talk to his associates about how they pursue the sting. He says a hundred people need to make phone calls like the one he just made, getting an opening with this group. What was in the other six minutes? What did she hear?

MAYER: Well, I mean, it's almost farcical. You have this sort of self-styled master of the sort of disguise who has tried to sting one organization after another, who, in fact, ends up stinging himself here. He unwittingly tapes his own phone conversation and leaves it on the voicemail of the people that he's trying to take down.

And what they hear is him scheming, basically, with his allies on how they're going to do this. So they talk about all kinds of sort of crazy sounding things. They're talking about - among themselves, about how they're going to try to offer some kind of money to George Soros' organizations in order to sort of see if they can kind of get them in a compromising position.

And they talk about - well, where are we going to get this money? We can't - we can't make it sound like it comes from offshore banks in the Caribbean, they talk about. So it's got to look legitimate. It needs to seem like it comes from another foundation. And they discuss among themselves whether they can come up with their own foundation to kind of offer the money.

And then they talk about, well, who's going to do this? And one person among the group says, well, he knows a British orthopedic surgeon who's visiting the country, it seems, and who has a great British accent and seems older. And he could pull this off. And he'd like to do anything he could for the group. And he's very good, they say, with technology.

And he could handle the cameras because, you know, he's very - they say, he's a very talented guy. And so they're talking about, you know, how they're going to sort of carry off this sting, use somebody who's disguised and offer some money. And so this goes on for a little while, and then - but then in what becomes a completely comic turn, at some point, James O'Keefe himself opens up the LinkedIn page online of the woman who they've just called, Dana Geraghty, and he starts to look at all the connections she has as other, what he calls, points of entry, from which he can try to find ways in to kind of take her down.

And what - but then the others suddenly say, oh, no, oh, no. If you look at her LinkedIn page, she might see who you are. And so there's this kind of, whoa, we better not do this and sort of a technological panic takes place. And they then, sort of saying to each other - logout, logout.

At any rate, when Dana Geraghty hears this, and she's 28 years old and very technologically savvy, she says, you know, I don't want to be ageist, but it was certainly clear that they were not familiar with the technology.

DAVIES: We're speaking with Jane Mayer. She is a staff writer for The New Yorker. She's also the author of the book, "Dark Money: The Hidden History Of The Billionaires Behind The Rise Of The Radical Right." We'll continue our conversation in just a moment. This is FRESH AIR.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

DAVIES: This is FRESH AIR. And if you're just joining us, we're speaking with Jane Mayer. She is a staff writer for The New Yorker. She has a new piece about some efforts by James O'Keefe, a conservative activist who's famous for getting undercover videos of liberal groups.

So, in effect, what was happening here was - he was making this phone call, which was an entree for what he hoped would be a sting operation for this group, the Open Society Foundations, forgot to hang up, and then we hear him - he starts talking to his confederates - and how to execute this. How did this become public?

MAYER: Well, so I had heard a little bit about it through the grapevine from somebody else and called the Open Society Institute and said, you know, did you save this tape? And luckily, they had. And when I listened to it, I thought, my God, you can hear - this is the inside of a dirty trick being played out in real time.

And you can hear sort of how these things are planned. So it became a wonderful kind of primary document, showing exactly what's going on in this campaign. But I wasn't entirely sure, of course, that Victor Kesh, as he portrayed himself, was James O'Keefe. So then I called up James O'Keefe, as any reporter would do, and asked him.

DAVIES: And he said?

MAYER: Well, the first time I spoke with him, he said, I cannot confirm or deny any operations real or imagined. And so he also sounded like he was a little baffled. He said, Victor Kesh? Victor Kesh? And so he wouldn't really confirm it at first. But then I continued to report on it and decided to pay a visit to him at his offices in Mamaroneck, N.Y., which is a suburb of New York.

DAVIES: Yeah, this is fascinating. And he let you in and gave you an interview. How did that happen?

MAYER: Well, he was actually somewhat welcoming. At first, they said no. But when I showed up and introduced myself, he wasn't there right that minute. But he called me back, and he said, come back. I'd like to show you our operation. And so he gave me kind of a guided tour of the inside of what he's doing right now.

DAVIES: What did you see?

MAYER: (Laughter). Well, it's a - sort of a ground-level storefront building with something like - he said, I think - 7,000 square feet inside - mostly empty. He was just moving in. And he was very proud of the new headquarters for his organization, which is called Project Veritas.

And as he showed me around - there wasn't even much furniture yet or - light fixtures, really, were just being put in. But he showed me a room where there was going to be a huge map, he said, with pins for all of the undercover operators that are working with him. And one of them, he said, he had already infiltrated into the campaign of Hillary Clinton.

And that person has been sending videotape from inside the Clinton campaign every night. You know, seven days a week, they're getting undercover video campaign from somebody, he says, who's an operative working for him.

DAVIES: At a pretty senior level in the Clinton campaign, he claims?

MAYER: Well, that's what he claimed - a high-echelon level. And he says that, you know, when they finally put the footage together into a documentary, it's going to be - you know, just rock the political world.

And so, you know, the thing about O'Keefe is - he speaks in grand terms, but his history, I think, would suggest that you need to take everything he says with a grain of salt. But he says he has at least a dozen undercover operations going on right now. And I could see - 'cause I went and took a look at the funding - whatever funding you can find about his organization that's on file - that he's got a fair amount of money coming in.

And his money has doubled from 2013. He had a budget of 1.2 million. And in 2014, it went up to 2.4 million. So is - he's got some funds here to pay for that big office that he's got in Mamaroneck and to pay for the operatives who are working for him.

DAVIES: You've made a specialty of following money in political giving. Can you tell who's supporting him?

MAYER: Well, this is one of the things that really interested me because this is something that's really happening in a big way in the campaign this year, which is that - in 2014, James O'Keefe founded something called Project Veritas Action Fund, which, according to the tax code, is a 501(c)(4) group.

It's supposed to be a social welfare group. And the thing about those groups - and they're proliferating in politics this year - is that you cannot find the money. You can't follow it if you're an ordinary citizen or if you are a reporter because the donors are kept secret.

And so when you take a look, you can - they have to do certain tax filings with the IRS. But when you look at them, you cannot find out where the money is coming from.

DAVIES: He showed you some of his hardware, right? What'd you see?

MAYER: He did. He had very sort of high-tech hidden cameras - an array of different ones. There was one that was hidden in an Aquafina bottle. He had a secret camera on his wrist watch. And there was one that you could put in a button on your shirt that would feed, also, video and sound through a Bluetooth connection to a control room. So, you know, there's all this kind of, like, gadget-y spyware there.

DAVIES: Did you check your clothing after you got back home?

MAYER: (Laughter). Well, it's funny. He - and I said to him, are you taping me? And he said no. And I said, well, good, because I'm not taping you, either. And every time I had a conversation with him, I asked, are you taping me? And he kept saying no. Who knows? We'll found out later if there's any tape.

DAVIES: (Laughter) OK. So we began with this attempted effort to penetrate this George Soros-related organization, the Open Society Foundations, with this botched phone call. What became of the Project Veritas investigation there?

MAYER: Well, James O'Keefe finally came out publicly and acknowledged that he had accidentally taped himself and had forgotten to hang up the phone. And so he has told his supporters that he's really sorry, he made a mistake and that unfortunately, the Soros investigation was now kaput.

DAVIES: Do we know how James O'Keefe first became aware that he had failed to hang up the phone and had recorded his own meeting?

MAYER: (Laughter). We don't know, exactly. He hasn't said that much about it. He's been - I asked him if this was he when I first called him. And he wouldn't directly answer. So it may be that I was the one who gave him the bad news.

GROSS: We're listening to the interview that FRESH AIR contributor Dave Davies recorded with New Yorker staff writer Jane Mayer. Her article in the current edition is about James O'Keefe and his sting operations. After we take a short break, we'll talk about dirty tricks and dark money in the current presidential campaign. I'm Terry Gross, and this is FRESH AIR.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross. Let's get back to the interview FRESH AIR contributor Dave Davies recorded with New Yorker staff writer Jane Mayer. Her new article is about conservative activist James O'Keefe, who's best known for his sting operations targeting groups and candidates he considers liberal, including the group ACORN. The article links into how he managed to botch one of his sting operations by accidentally stinging himself.

DAVIES: You just spoke about your visit to Project Veritas, which is the organization of James O'Keefe, who's become famous for recording secret videos of liberal organizations in attempts to embarrass them. When he says he has an undercover operation in the Hillary Clinton campaign feeding back secret video and he plans to do all kinds of other undercover operations around the country, did you talk about the morality, the propriety of this kind of work with him?

MAYER: I did. And - I mean, and what he fancies himself to be - or he tries to say he is anyway - is an investigative reporter, who he says - he argues that the undercover videos he gets shows the real truth as compared to what reporters show on things like talk shows, where, you know, he says all they get is spin. I get the unedited, real truth. But of course (laughter) there's another side to this. He is manufacturing the situations that are attempts to try to snare people. And so, you know, offering money, for instance, and trying to walk people into saying things that they might not say ordinarily.

It's not just straight undercover video. It's a production he's putting on, really. And even - I have to say as someone who is a reporter and has been for many, many years, there's a lot of controversy about whether it's ever ethical for a reporter to misrepresent who they are. I certainly would never do it. I don't know many people who would. It's kind of an underhanded thing to do, to lie in order to get the truth.

DAVIES: You write that he began this actually in college for the first time. There's a funny story there.

MAYER: It's true. I mean, and I have to say he has an eye for the kind of sensational and outrageous way to take on liberals. And in college, he was at Rutgers. And he was an undergraduate and he, as a conservative, was offended by all of the strictures on political correctness about ethnic issues and what was racist and what could and couldn't be said. So he decided to go into the dining hall on St. Patrick's Day, and he demanded as an American of Irish descent that they get rid Lucky Charms cereal because there was a little green man on the front of the cereal box who was a leprechaun. And he said it offended him that Irish-Americans would be portrayed in this demeaning way.

And it was his first sort of video stunt. He filmed it while he was having these confrontations with the administration about the Lucky Charms. And they agreed to ban the cereal, which then, of course, pushed the kind of political correctness to an idiotic point. And then he made his point.

And what he told me I thought was very interesting also was that while he was at Rutgers, one of his professors had him study the work of Saul Alinsky, who famously was a leftist activist who wrote a book called "Rules For Radicals." And he learned by reading Alinsky how to take on the left himself.

DAVIES: You know, negative campaigning is as old as politics. But it's increasingly better funded and more sophisticated nowadays. There's a difference between, you know, doing research on your opponent and taking some license with the facts and spinning them - a difference between that and using deception to create artificial situations and catch your opponent, you know, embarrassing him or herself. How common is the use of deception in American politics?

MAYER: Well, I mean, if you go back to the very beginning of the republic, there were dirty tricks, certainly. Thomas Jefferson had allies who were writing anonymously nasty columns and things to try to take down his political enemies. So you've had at least undercover operations.

But what's really changed, according to people who follow these things closely, are two things. One is the technology. So now you've got everybody with a smartphone able to videotape something and put it right up on the Internet where the entire world can see it. That's kind of normalized the process of getting the - spreading the dirt everywhere by amateurs and professionals. And at the same time, there have been changes in the campaign-finance laws, particularly since the Citizens United decision by the Supreme Court in 2010 that now have opened the floodgates for secret spending. And you've got just enormous amounts of money able to fund all this kind of new technology undercover video and operatives such as James O'Keefe, who specialize in dirty tricks.

DAVIES: Yeah, you know, it's - if a campaign engages in a particularly harsh attack on their opponent, it can harm them. And this has been demonstrated. You can take a hit at the polls if you are responsible for an attack. In a lot of these cases, the attacks are not coming from the opposing candidate. They're coming from a third-party. So in a sense, there's no accountability, is there?

MAYER: And that is really the issue is that there's no accountability. I mean, you - who's funding this? Wouldn't you like to know? And there's nobody you can hold responsible for it when it is unethical and unfair. And, you know, the lies travel very, very fast these days.

DAVIES: You write about some other groups involved in some negative work these days. What is America Rising?

MAYER: Well, now, America Rising - now, both parties by now - the Democrats and the Republicans - have their own kind of full-time negative campaign operations that are separate from the party itself and separate from the candidates. They're supposedly independent, but they work with their own side. And America Rising is the name of the - sort of the overall name for the organization that the Republicans have created. It started in 2012, and it is on the cutting edge of all of this kind of negative and secret-money-funded dirty campaigning.

DAVIES: And what are they up to?

MAYER: Well, America Rising has several different divisions. Ok, it was founded by Matt Rhoades, who ran Mitt Romney's campaign in 2012. And it has one section that is fairly conventional in politics now, which is a superPAC. And in that case, you can see the money. You know where it's coming from. And they put on negative ads on the air and on social media.

But it's also got a secret money division, dark money division that's called America Rising Squared, which - where you can't know where the money's coming from. And that part is tracking people, which is really something kind of new in terms of the sort of technology. It's really boomed in the last couple years.

And what it means is that America Rising Squared is hiring people who just - they chase after their enemies like deer flies going after a deer with video cameras following everywhere they go and looking for any kind of slip up or embarrassing footage that they can then turn into an ad or just put on the air and catch them in some way that demeans them or compromises them. So they've got a division doing that. And then beyond that now and the latest wrinkle really is that America Rising has now in the last couple months - really I guess beginning in May - spawned a new division, which is called Definers Public Affairs. And it is a privately-funded organization that takes money from businesses - secret money so you'll never know where it's coming from - but it advertises that it will wage a negative campaign against the enemy of the business that's just as state-of-the-art as any political campaign - using trackers and every other kind of technology.

They will go after your enemy for you, and they'll do it for a profit for them. And they won't tell that you're the person who funded it. And that's what American Definers does.

DAVIES: Wow. All right, so let's talk about the liberals and Democrats. Do they have...

MAYER: Well, they've got their problems, too.

DAVIES: Yeah, what are they doing in these areas?

MAYER: So in 2010, David Brock, who had formally been a self-described right-wing hit man, who had sort of famously gone after Anita Hill among others on the left, he changed his colors, decided to become a liberal Democrat. And in 2010 after the Democrats were defeated badly across the whole country by secret spending, dark-money spending from the Republican side, David Brock, who knew something about sort of how dirty politics are waged, decided to found a new organization that would help the Democrats conduct their own sort of negative campaigns. And it's called American Bridge. And it has many, many different facets to it. But it is a - kind of a one-stop shopping arsenal for the Democratic Party and for liberal causes who want to fight back against the other side if they're fighting dirty and maybe fight even dirtier in their own way.

DAVIES: What do we know about what they've done?

MAYER: So what America Rising has done is it really professionalized the use of these video trackers. They'd been kind of amateurs in earlier years in American politics. In 2006, there was a famous campaign in Virginia, where George Allen was running for governor. And he used the word macaca to describe somebody of Indian descent who was videotaping him. And it was taken as a racist slur. It killed George Allen's campaign. And it showed everybody that if you have video of a candidate saying something awful, you might be able to kill their campaign.

And so watching that, David Brock decided to hire something like 40 video trackers who just fan out full-time across the country following candidates as they're trying to run for office just hoping that they'll say something awful with which they can bring them down. And in 2012, it paid off for the Democrats.

They - it was somebody working with David Brock's operation that got on tape Todd Akin, who was running for the Senate in Missouri, and started talking about how sometimes there were legitimate rapes. Just that phrase legitimate rape was enough to kill Todd Akin's candidacy. And that was the end of him. So it's become a very - sort of the silver bullet that both sides are looking for is damaging video. And they're both employing these sort of armies of video trackers who swarm after the candidates. That's a big part of what American Bridge does. It does many other things, too.

DAVIES: Like what?

MAYER: Well, it has an organization called Media Matters for America, which bird-dogs the right-wing media looking for distortions and inaccuracies. And then when it catches them, it sends out massive emails, it blogs online material to reporters showing where the falsehoods are. And then they also have something called Correct the Record, which is working specifically to promote Hillary Clinton's candidacy. And it is just busting any kind of inaccuracies as they see it about anything that anyone writes about Hillary Clinton. So they are her biggest defenders in some ways.

DAVIES: Jane Mayer is a staff writer for The New Yorker. We will continue our conversation after a short break. This is FRESH AIR.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

DAVIES: This is FRESH AIR, and if you're just joining us, we're speaking with Jane Mayer. She's a staff writer for The New Yorker, also author of the book "Dark Money: The Hidden History Of The Billionaires Behind The Rise Of The Radical Right."

You were last on the show talking about your book, which looked at how a number of wealthy conservatives, in particular Charles and David Koch, have been effective for decades in moving public opinion to the right and affecting the Republican Party.

And now we're at a presidential election in which the party they have built such influence in was powerless to stop Donald Trump, who they were not particularly fond of. How are the Kochs and their allies reacting to this presidential campaign?

MAYER: Well, they certainly don't like Donald Trump. And this was the year when they had amassed what they announced to be a campaign war chest of $889 million. And they were aiming to take over, if they possibly could for the Republican Party, the White House, the Senate, the House and hopefully appoint a Supreme Court justice who would be amenable to their point of view.

And so this has somewhat foiled the plan to have Donald Trump in there. He is the only major Republican presidential candidate who they really had big problems with. All the rest of the major Republican candidates came to these sort of secret meetings they hold with donors sort of begging for their backing. But Trump thumbed his nose at them and described everybody else as puppets.

So this was an unforeseen development for them. I've been talking to people, you know, doing more reporting on them to try to figure out, well, so what are they going to do about this? And they've pretty much thrown up their hands about the presidential race. And what they're doing now is directing that huge war chest of cash very seriously at trying to keep the Senate and the House in Republican hands as well as win Republican elections in governorships across the country and judgeships and all kinds of races down the ballot.

And contrary to what I would've expected, somebody I interviewed yesterday who's working with them said he thinks they're on a roll. He thinks that they've got a ton of money and they've got a great game plan going. They've got 1,000 people now on their payroll just doing political work. This is just the Koch organization, which is called Freedom Partners.

They're operating in at least 35 states. And they've targeted many, many races that they're going to play in. But it's just not going to be in the presidential race.

DAVIES: You know, there was a fortune spent trying to stop Trump. I mean, several super PACs aligned with other candidates, you know, spent millions and millions on negative ads and, you know, to really not much effect. Does that tell us anything about the power of money to affect politics and win elections?

MAYER: Yeah, I mean, I think, you know, there's certainly limits to what money can do. And where money has the least value is in the American presidential race. It's the most visible race probably in the world at this point. And people can see for themselves what the candidates look like. And they're quite acquainted with what's going on.

And so what money buys are ads and spin and things like that. And it works especially well in races where no one's paying attention because you can then frame the issues and frame the candidates because voters aren't that familiar with what's going on. It's very hard to have that kind of influence on a race like the one involving Donald Trump that everybody's watching agape every day.

DAVIES: Your book "Dark Money" had a lot of really interesting revelations about the Koch family and its history and about the web of organizations and political committees through which they exert influence. It's an amazing wealth of information. When it came out, did the Kochs dispute your facts or analysis at all?

MAYER: Well, I've been delighted. They actually have not found anything to complain about much. There was one thing that happened right when the book came out. There's a revelation in it that the father of the Koch brothers worked with Adolf Hitler to build a refinery in Nazi Germany, an oil refinery. And the company came out and said that he only built part of the refinery. So there was that correction.

But, you know, subsequently, there's been a lot of coverage about how they hired a private eye to go after me and to try to smear me. And they've never disputed any of that or really anything else in the book. But one thing that did happen that is kind of interesting apropos of today's interview is that America Rising, the same sort of conservative opposition research group that works with the Republican Party, came after me at some point and tried to question whether there were too many unnamed sources in the book.

So America Rising said they were defending the Kochs because the Kochs are one of their people.

DAVIES: Jane Mayer, it's good to have you again. Thanks so much.

MAYER: Thanks for having me.

GROSS: Jane Mayer spoke with FRESH AIR contributor Dave Davies, who is also WHYY's senior reporter. Mayer's article on James O'Keefe's botched sting is in the current edition of The New Yorker. After we take a short break, our TV critic David Bianculli will review the remake of the miniseries "Roots." This is FRESH AIR. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.