WASHINGTON — The disinformation operation was christened “Project Clintonson.” It brought together two notorious figures in Republican political circles, Blackwater founder Erik Prince and Trump adviser Roger Stone. Their objective couldn’t have been more explicit.
“We do not need to make major gains among African American voters,” said a 13-page proposal for Project Clintonson that Prince sent to unnamed donors a week before Election Day 2016. “We merely need to dampen turn out [sic] and make it difficult for the Black Democratic elected officials in Hillary’s pocket to turn out Black voters at Obama-like levels. A shift of a few points in the right places can swing this election.”
The aim of Project Clintonson was to spotlight a young black man named Danney Williams, who claims that he is Bill Clinton’s son, and to cast Hillary Clinton as the “villain of this drama.” The pitch for Project Clintonson says that Williams was “definitively the abandoned son” of Bill Clinton and that “African American voters would be incensed to learn that it was Hillary who demanded that Bill abandon his only son.”
There is no evidence to back up the claims about Danney Williams and the Clintons, but proving that wasn’t the point. The goal of this project was to weaponize a conspiracy theory about a supposed illegitimate son of Bill Clinton as a way to disgust black Americans and dissuade them from voting in the 2016 election, documents obtained by Rolling Stone indicate.
A key piece of Trump’s strategy four years ago — and again this November — is a constant barrage of lies, disinformation, and hyperbolic rhetoric to drown out the news and overwhelm the average voter, to “flood the zone with shit,” as former Trump White House adviser Steve Bannon put it.
The new documents obtained by Rolling Stone include an emailed fundraising plea from Prince to prospective donors and the 13-page proposal laying out the objectives and multimillion-dollar budget for Project Clintonson, which would be routed through a shadowy nonprofit group tied to Roger Stone called the Committee for American Sovereignty Education Fund.
Internal documents, tax records, and interviews about Stone and Prince’s efforts with Project Clintonson illustrate how a lax campaign-finance system and an overtly racist voter-suppression effort created the perfect opportunity to do just what Bannon said. They show the Trump operation’s real aims when it came to black voters, the lengths they would go to dissuade black voters, and the very real possibility that similar operations are underway in 2020.
IN LATE OCTOBER 2016, Erik Prince — Trump supporter, founder of the scandal-plagued private security firm Blackwater, and brother of Education Secretary Betsy DeVos — sent out a fundraising plea from his personal email account. “Please read and consider helping,” he wrote. “I know many of you have given heavily already but consider the taste of Victory compared to the stench of defeat in November.”
Prince said he was raising money for a 501(c)(4) social-welfare nonprofit named the Committee for American Sovereignty Education Fund. The nonprofit had multiple ties to Roger Stone, the Trump adviser and GOP operative who would later be convicted of witness tampering and lying to Congress in connection with Special Counsel Robert Mueller’s investigation. Stone has described the nonprofit as one of his projects. The treasurer listed on the group’s tax filings works for a law firm, Jensen and Associates, that has organized multiple groups led by Stone and accepted more than $100,000 from the Committee for American Sovereignty Education Fund. (Stone told Rolling Stone that he did not write the 13-page plan for Project Clintonson, though he added, “but of course the content is familiar to me.”)
This particular group, Prince wrote, had crafted a media campaign built around Danney Williams, who for years has claimed he is Bill Clinton’s son. The illegitimate-son conspiracy theory dates back to Clinton’s first run for president in 1992, and it’s one of many conspiracy theories that has trailed the Clintons for decades. (A lawyer for Erik Prince did not respond to questions about his role in raising money for the Committee for American Sovereignty Education Fund and Project Clintonson. Williams did not respond to an interview request sent via his official Facebook page, and a lawyer who has represented him in the past did not respond to multiple requests for comment.)
There is no evidence to conclude that Williams is related to Bill Clinton. But in 2016, pro-Trump operatives breathed new life into the Williams story as a way to attack Hillary Clinton.
Prince wrote to the potential donors that 18 million people “in the target audience” had already viewed a nine-minute video, “Banished,” that claimed to tell the truth about Williams and Clinton. In the video, Williams cries as he talks about being shunned by the Clintons, while at the same time repeating word-for-word Republican talking points about Hillary Clinton calling black men “super-predators” and that “if black lives truly mattered” to the Clintons, they would accept him as Bill’s biological son. Two million more viewers, Prince went on, had watched a rap video that featured Williams. And he said the Committee for American Sovereignty Education Fund was targeting another video to the “younger black community” and the group’s content was getting “Good FREE pick up in black media.” These “outreach videos” that featured Williams, Prince wrote, “are targeted at the black community to help them think twice about supporting Hillary and her dead beat husband.”
The document attached to Prince’s email describes Project Clintonson as part of a broader effort involving other lines of attack on Clinton aimed at black voters. But the story of Danney Williams, the document says, “is the coup de gras [sic].”
The Project Clintonson proposal goes into greater detail about promoting short films and clips featuring Williams on Twitter, Facebook, Snapchat, and Instagram. “This is the most efficient way to reach Black voters 18 to 30,” the document says. It also proposes staged events, press conferences, and interviews featuring Williams on “urban radio” in specific media markets: Philadelphia, Cleveland, Miami, Fayetteville, Charlotte, Detroit, Milwaukee, and Richmond. According to a proposed budget included in the plan, Williams would be paid $5,500, a relative would receive $4,500 for “Make Over/Dental/Support,” $5,000 for wardrobe, and $35,000 for travel costs. The biggest line item is $250,000 for digital advertising.
It’s unclear how much of this plan came to fruition. That document claimed that Harvard professor and public intellectual Cornel West and legendary boxer Evander Holyfield would be recruited to introduce Williams at a press conference, which never happened. But based on the available evidence, it appears that Stone, Prince, and company had the money to follow through on some of Project Clintonson. Tax records show the Committee for American Sovereignty Education Fund had revenue close to $800,000 in 2016. On tax filings, the group said its mission was to “promote the rights of families and to defend challenges to the legislative process that would hinder those rights” and to “promote integrity in the electoral process.”
The tax records the Committee for American Sovereignty Education Fund say the group spent $632,279 on speeches, videos, and a website to highlight “adults who were negatively impacted as children by absent fathers.” The records show it also spent $50,000 on “litigation expenses” while making a $16,500 grant to a Super PAC, the Committee for American Sovereignty, that shared a law firm with the Stone-affiliated 501(c)(4) nonprofit.
The documentary about Williams — produced by a filmmaker named Joel Gilbert who has espoused conspiracy theories about Barack Obama, including that he was a communist Manchurian candidate whose real father was the labor activist Frank Marshall Davis — garnered several million views on YouTube. Williams also held press conferences in Washington, D.C., and in Las Vegas before the third 2016 presidential debate to make the case that he was Bill Clinton’s biological son. Stone has since claimed that the videos he helped disseminate about Williams reached an audience of 38 million people across multiple platforms.
But the aim of suppressing black votes aligned with other underhanded tactics used by the Trump campaign and Stone in 2016. As Bloomberg and the U.K.’s Channel 4 have reported, the campaign marked 3.5 million black Americans in its voter lists with the label “Deterrence” and sought to dissuade them from casting a ballot. As for Stone, who had called the late Herman Cain “Mandingo” and asked whether ex-GOP presidential candidate Ben Carson’s campaign headquarters should be called “Uncle Tom’s Cabin,” the Pennsylvania Democratic Party alleged in an October 2016 lawsuit that Stop the Steal, a group affiliated with Stone, had amplified unfounded claims of a “rigged” election, while Stone himself sought to mislead Democratic voters by tweeting that Clinton supporters could “VOTE the NEW way on Tues. Nov 8th” by texting “HILLARY to 8888.” (The Pennsylvania Democratic Party dropped the suit the day after the election.)
Black voter turnout did slump in 2016, but it’s impossible to say whether Project Clintonson contributed to that dip. Stone nonetheless took some credit for Clinton’s underwhelming performance. “While the Danney Williams story may not have alone converted the majority of African American voters into Republicans, the media attention it received, along with the lack of economic progress and the Clinton crime bill, together were sufficient to reduce enthusiasm for Hillary Clinton in the African American community,” Stone wrote in The Making of the President 2016: How Donald Trump Orchestrated a Revolution. “This depressed black voter turnout, which was critical to Trump’s ultimate victory in the election.”
AT THE BOTTOM OF THE FINAL PAGE of the Project Clintonson pitch packet, there is a disclaimer: “We are funded through a C-4 — we can accept unlimited contributions and donor’s identities are NOT required to be made public.”
Big, anonymous money is the unseen hand shaping American politics at every turn — elections, judicial confirmations, policy battles in Congress, gerrymandering in state legislatures. It was in 2016, and now in 2020, if Trump’s allies want to covertly target black voters with efforts to keep them from voting, there’s nothing to stop them — and very little to hold them accountable.
Stone’s Committee for American Sovereignty Education Fund offered donors both power and privacy by utilizing the broken American campaign finance system. The group said it had sought 501(c)(4) nonprofit status, which, under the tax code, means it was supposed to promote social welfare. 501(c)(4) groups are allowed to engage in a modest amount of politicking, but their primary purpose is supposed to be advancing issues with broad public benefit — think the Sierra Club and the environment, the ACLU and civil rights. But in the past decade, 501(c)(4) nonprofit groups with innocent-sounding names — Crossroads GPS, the Koch-backed Americans for Prosperity, the left-leaning Patriot Majority — have flooded elections with gobs of dark money and become the vehicle of choice for wealthy donors and corporations on the left and the right to spend hundreds of millions of dollars.
Experts on dark-money groups, however, say Prince and Stone’s use of the tax code to raise and spend unlimited amounts of anonymous money, with the seemingly explicit purpose to defeat Hillary Clinton, stretches the letter of the law to its limit.
On its 2016 tax return, the group listed a UPS Store as its address and California as its state of legal domicile, but there is no record of the group’s incorporation with California’s secretary of state. The group failed to file its 2016 return on time and had to file an amended version after it forgot to disclose one of its top vendors as required by law. The 2016 return listed no employees or board members; the only name that appears is that of Pamela Jensen, identified the group’s treasurer. Jensen is listed elsewhere as an employee at the Committee’s law firm, Jensen and Associates, located in Southern California.
On that same return, the group checked “No” when asked whether it planned to “engage in direct or indirect political campaign activities.” But Erik Prince’s email and the Project Clintonson documents indicate that depressing black voter turnout to defeat Hillary Clinton was indeed a clear objective of the Committee for American Sovereignty Education Fund. “It seems pretty clear based on the [Prince] email that [Committee for American Sovereignty Education Fund] knew they existed to impact the outcome of the election, and so the answer to that question doesn’t appear to be accurate,” says Robert Maguire of Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington.
For 2017, the committee filed only a short-form tax return — known as a 990 EZ — listing just $22,000 in revenue and $27,000 in spending. After that, it appears to have shut down entirely, failing to file any kind of tax return for 2018.
Marcus Owens, a tax lawyer and former director of the IRS’s Exempt Organizations division, calls the Stone-affiliated nonprofit “the classic example of a dark money organization.” He says he’s seen examples in which 501(c)(4) groups take advantage of an IRS provision enacted in 2006 that allows them to simply stop submitting annual filings to the IRS and, after three years, their tax-exempt status is revoked — but they never have to file a final disclosure with the government. “I know for a fact that some of these politically active organizations use that as a way to disappear from view without having to explain what they did with their money,” he says. “That may be what’s going on here.” (A lawyer for the group, who often works for Roger Stone-affiliated groups, did not respond to requests for comment.)
As the IRS has seen its budget slashed by billions of dollars during the Obama and Trump administrations, the nation’s tax collector has reduced its enforcement division staff by 30 percent, making it harder to crack down on nonprofit groups that skirt or break the law. But Stone’s work with the Committee for American Sovereignty Education Fund caught the attention of a different federal agency: the Justice Department. According to news reports, Special Counsel Robert Mueller’s team subpoenaed records from a vendor, Citroen Associates, that was paid by the Committee for American Sovereignty Education Fund as well as a Super PAC that Stone operated. (Mueller’s final redacted report makes no mention of the Committee for American Sovereignty Education Fund, Danney Williams, or Project Clintonson.)
Stone, for his part, has said he was not an officer of the Committee for American Sovereignty Education Fund even though in previous media interviews he took ownership of the group. He told InfoWars he was “being investigated for the filming and production of this incredible documentary, which was done entirely legally through a nonprofit educational fund called the Committee for American Sovereignty Education Fund. All of our filings have been proper, but the special prosecutor seems focused on this effort.”
In his email to Rolling Stone, Stone said the group’s activities were “perfectly legal.” He insisted that Danney Williams was indeed Bill Clinton’s son and sent a link to the Joel Gilbert documentary about Williams, the same movie touted in Prince’s 2016 fundraising email. “Education is not voter suppression,” Stone told Rolling Stone. “Be very careful what you write as defamation will be met with legal action.”
ABOUT NINE OUT OF EVERY 10 BLACK VOTERS who voted in 2016 voted against Trump, according to exit polling. However, turnout among black Americans sagged compared to what it was 2008 and 2012, which contributed to Clinton’s surprise defeat.
Three months after Prince sent his email, President-elect Trump hosted a meeting at Trump Tower in New York with a group of black leaders, including Martin Luther King III and other representatives of the Drum Major Institute, a voting rights group led by descendants of the leaders of the civil rights movement.
Trump brought up the low turnout among black voters with the group — not to lament it, but explain that it had helped him clinch the presidency. “Many blacks didn’t go out to vote for Hillary ‘cause they liked me,” Trump said, according to a leaked recording of the meeting. “That was almost as good as getting the vote, you know, and it was great.”