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 left-leaning politics. She signed up to attend 15 related social gatherings, 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 startup 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 her false claim to 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' sustained attempt to insinuate herself into the social circles of Washington 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' 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 the District of Columbia 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 if 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' 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' 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 Project Veritas founder 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 D.C. area to work for a "peace building" organization.
Her original social media accounts were eventually erased – and the accounts with the left-leaning 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' 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 District chapter of the Online News Association at Union Drinkery, an event that was hosted by Tauhid Chappell, a social media producer at 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 if 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 for 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 her 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 published Wednesday evening about the encounter.
In an interview Tuesday, Goodell 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 was Goodell, McClatchy data reporter Ben Wieder and reporters from Bloomberg BNA and the Center for Public Integrity, Weider 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 cautious 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 from email@example.com 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," she wrote.
She suggested he could help her focus her research and asked if they could meet for drinks or lunch. Lamothe did not respond.
Lamothe said he did not know 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 then-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 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.