It seemed like an outpouring of veteran anger against Donald Trump: over a dozen former service members protesting outside Trump Tower.
But the reality was more complicated. The protest was actually a coordinated effort, led in part by the Hillary Clinton campaign, to embarrass her Republican rival for his failed efforts to raise money for veterans. It only looked like a grassroots demonstration.
A spokesman for the demonstrators insisted they had no affiliation with any campaign. Later he said the protesters had reached out to the Clinton campaign for press contacts, but that’s all. Then the activist finally admitted that, yes, the Clinton campaign had helped organize the protest.
It all started over the weekend, after The Washington Post broke the news that Trump had not raised the $6 million for veterans groups he promised earlier this year. (His campaign manager acknowledged the figure was less but has given conflicting accounts on how much less.) The Trump campaign’s admission followed months of silence to reporter questions on where the money had gone, since millions had been unaccounted for.
The Clinton campaign swiftly organized a conference call for Saturday, led by the Clinton campaign’s veterans and military families outreach director, Jonathan Murray. According to one of the people on that call, participants were told that the Clinton campaign should not be seen viewed as behind the organizer of the protest.
At Monday’s protest, Marine veteran and Clinton supporter Alexander McCoy served as a spokesman for the demonstrators—and went to great lengths to hide the Clinton campaign’s involvement with organizing the demonstration.
“We’re not affiliated with any campaign, we’re not affiliated with any organization,” McCoy told reporters, saying the protesters used “grassroots organizing techniques, we came together over social media.”
McCoy later told The Daily Beast he reached out to the Clinton campaign to obtain press contacts but denied that Clinton staffers had been involved in organizing the event.
Then, reached by phone after the event, McCoy acknowledged that the Clinton campaign organized the conference call bringing together possible attendees to the protest.
The Clinton campaign initially played down its role in the event, but Murray later said in a statement to The Daily Beast: “[W]e were more than happy to lend some logistical support to the activists who organized today’s protest and we’ll be happy to do the same for any other veterans who want to speak out against Trump’s shameful disrespect.”
An organizer who participated in Saturday’s Clinton campaign-led conference call also said McCoy had discouraged the participation of the Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America (IAVA) or other major veterans groups to prevent them from claiming the limelight.
McCoy disputed that characterization, telling The Daily Beast he expressed concern on the call about Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America members “showing up in IAVA T-shirts,” which could send a confused message about the focus of the protest. There was no attempt to block IAVA or other veterans groups, he said.
Nevertheless, one veterans organizer said, the result was an astroturfed political stunt rather than an expression of grassroots outrage.
“Trump has time after time fucked us over,” said the frustrated organizer. “But what are we doing here? Why was the protest organized this way? Why were veterans groups shut out? It’s disappointing.”
Trump has failed to follow through on raising $6 million for veterans after months of refusing to answer questions about the funds.
But Monday’s demonstration—attended by between 15 and 20 individuals—was a disjointed effort that squandered an opportunity to hold him accountable after months of obfuscation.
Approximately $3 million of that fundraising has been accounted for: In early March, CNN was able to track down $2.9 million, citing the Trump campaign. In early April, The Wall Street Journal traced $2.4 million of the promised funds.
Meanwhile, the Trump campaign appeared unwilling to assist in accounting for the funds: “I could ask, but it’s not high on my priority list,” Al Baldasaro, Trump campaign’s adviser for veterans issues, told The Daily Beast last month.
“Donald Trump, who is allegedly a billionaire, repeatedly boasted on the campaign trail that his January event raised $6 million for veterans charities, and yet four months later, he’s still refusing to make good on that promise. And that’s just the tip of the iceberg when it comes to his contempt for those who have served,” Murray said.
The Trump campaign’s rocky relations with veterans began early, when he dismissed Sen. John McCain’s reputation as a war hero, despite the former presidential candidate’s record as a prisoner of war.
“I like people that weren’t captured, OK?” Trump said in July. The remarks incensed veterans groups, who were quick to point out that Trump avoided military service through an intricate series of student and medical deferments.
Despite these early insults, Trump has made veterans a cornerstone of his campaign rhetoric—at least outwardly. But while he often claims to raise money for veterans, even skipping a televised debate to host a purported pro-military fundraiser, his donations fall far short of the figures he boasts of raising on the campaign trail.
Had it been better organized, or more inclusive, the Monday protest might have attracted a higher turnout.
For about an hour, some 15 or 20 veterans packed the crowded sidewalk outside Trump Tower, as Trump fans and tourists jostled around them to enter the building that doubles as Trump’s home and campaign headquarters. Some passers-by jeered at the veterans. “Trump! Trump! Trump!” chanted two women in “Make America Great Again” hats, while a third woman in a Trump Tower souvenir hat shouted that the protesters were “a disgrace.”
The veterans demonstrated for approximately an hour, demanding an apology from Trump and waving signs reading “Trumpty Dumpty didn’t serve. Trumpty Dumpty broke his word” and “Veterans are not props for hate.”
Despite the abundant sunshine, the group of anti-Trump protesters felt what at first seemed like rain on their parade. High up on Trump Tower, a window-washer was at work, liberally splashing water down on the veterans gathered on the street to protest the Republican presidential candidate.
“Someone’s emptying their chamberpot,” one of the veterans remarked, nodding up at the falling water.