Cam Harris, a recent college graduate hoping to build a career as a political consultant, received an unwelcome email from a New York Times reporter this month. As the reporter, Scott Shane, recounted on the front page of Thursday’s Times, he had discovered that Harris was the publisher of a fake news site dedicated to smearing Hillary Clinton.
So Harris did what came naturally. He started to spin. First, he admitted that he had written the hoax news articles casting Clinton as a criminal on his site, ChristianTimesNewspaper.com. Eight of his stories attracted enough attention on social networks to merit debunking by Snopes, the fact-checking site, and one of them, published a month before the election, attracted six million readers with the headline, “BREAKING: ‘Tens of thousands’ of fraudulent Clinton votes found in Ohio warehouse.”
But when he was asked about his motives for posting elaborate disinformation about Clinton online over the course of 11 months, Harris was a little more economical with the truth. Even though he had attacked Clinton relentlessly on Twitter during the campaign, and voted for Donald Trump, Harris told The Times that his goals were purely financial. He had focused on potentially damaging fabrications about Clinton, he claimed, simply because those pieces generated more clicks and so more ad revenue than attacks on Trump.
“I didn’t really have a political motivation whatsoever,” he told Shane in a subsequent Facebook Live interview. “It was a way to make money.”
What Harris failed to mention to The Times, however, is that during the entire time that he was spreading lies about the Democratic presidential candidate, he was employed as a legislative aide and campaign manager for a Republican member of the Maryland state legislature, David Vogt III.
Harris also concealed from The Times that when he sat down to create his anti-Clinton fiction “at the kitchen table in his apartment,” he was living in Vogt’s basement in Brunswick, Maryland. As Maryland’s Frederick News-Post reported on Wednesday, an FEC filing related to Vogt’s failed race for Congress earlier this year listed the same home address for both the state lawmaker and his young campaign manager, Harris.
Vogt fired Harris Wednesday afternoon, after the Times story went online, and said he had no idea what his young aide and tenant had been up to at that kitchen table. “I was shocked to hear that he could do such a thing,” the legislator told The Washington Post.
Harris backed that account in a text message to the Frederick News-Post. “Delegate Vogt was not involved in any way,” he wrote.
He then posted a long statement on Twitter, which included a brief apology and a longer discourse on “the dynamics behind” the spike in election-related fake news.
But even if Vogt was entirely unaware of the anti-Clinton hoaxes regularly published by his aide, the fact that these pieces were produced by a Republican operative during an election campaign suggests that at least some of what we now refer to as the new phenomenon of fake news might be better described by using an older term: “dirty tricks.”
Seen through that lens, Harris — like the many other Trump supporters who concocted fake medical records or spread malicious rumors about Clinton in the guise of news reports — is part of a long tradition exemplified by Watergate-era dirty tricksters like Roger Stone, a longtime Trump adviser.
As Stone boasts on his website, he “was the youngest member of the staff in President Richard Nixon’s re-election campaign in 1972, the notorious CREEP — Committee for the Re-Election of the President. In a New Yorker profile, Jeffrey Toobin explained that Stone’s work for CREEP began when he dropped out of college and found a way to dupe reporters into printing false news:
Stone moved to Washington to attend George Washington University, but he became so engrossed in Republican politics that he never graduated. He was just nineteen when he played a bit part in the Watergate scandals. He adopted the pseudonym Jason Rainier and made contributions in the name of the Young Socialist Alliance to the campaign of Pete McCloskey, who was challenging Nixon for the Republican nomination in 1972. Stone then sent a receipt to the Manchester Union Leader, to “prove” that Nixon’s adversary was a left-wing stooge.