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The incredibly shoddy plot to smear Robert Mueller, explained

Mueller’s office has asked the FBI to investigate what happened.

Robert Mueller
Robert Mueller
Saul Loeb/AFP/Getty Images
Andrew Prokop is a senior politics correspondent at Vox, covering the White House, elections, and political scandals and investigations. He’s worked at Vox since the site’s launch in 2014, and before that, he worked as a research assistant at the New Yorker’s Washington, DC, bureau.

An apparent attempt to drum up phony sexual misconduct allegations against special counsel Robert Mueller collapsed spectacularly Tuesday, and may have landed some conservative activists in hot water with the FBI.

“When we learned last week of allegations that women were offered money to make false claims about the Special Counsel, we immediately referred the matter to the FBI for investigation,” Mueller’s spokesperson said in a statement.

Exactly what was going on remains unclear — including the object of the apparent scheme. But it spilled into public view after pro-Trump Twitter personality Jacob Wohl ominously suggested Monday night that a story about such allegations was coming, and journalists who had heard about this shady operation reacted with alarm on Twitter, saying it seemed to be a smear attempt.

The key people involved to some extent appear to be:

  • Jacob Wohl: a 20-year-old conservative who’s most famous for sending speedy sycophantic replies to Trump’s tweets and making implausible, factually dubious claims. He also ran some shady hedge funds.
  • Jack Burkman: a Republican lobbyist and conspiracy theorist who has repeatedly made false claims to have bombshell political information (such as a mystery witness proving DNC staffer Seth Rich was murdered by the government, or someone who would come forward accusing a member of Congress of sexual harassment).

What happened

The gist is that Wohl, Burkman, or both may have been involved in a plot to drum up these allegations. Or they may have just been trolling the media. Or Wohl might even have been tricking Burkman on some level.

What we know so far is that:

  • On October 17, a bunch of prominent reporters and Twitter personalities got a weird email, supposedly from a woman named “Lorraine,” who claimed that someone working for Jack Burkman had offered to pay her to make accusations of sexual misconduct against Mueller. However, no one has yet been able to verify her identity or that she even exists (and indeed, Burkman now claims that she “doesn’t exist”). The email may well be total bullshit.
  • In any case, some recipients of this email got “Lorraine” to provide the info of the man who supposedly contacted her. They got in touch with him and were each told they were “in over your head” and to “drop” the matter. One says he then got a phone call from a man who identified himself as working for “Surefire Intelligence.”
  • Around this time, Jack Burkman said on social media that he was trying to get women with allegations about Mueller to come forward. Jacob Wohl, meanwhile, claimed on Twitter to have heard a rumor that something like this would soon happen.
  • On October 22, law professor Jennifer Taub got an email from someone with a Surefire Intelligence account, asking her about her “past encounters with Robert Mueller” and offering to “compensate” her for a phone call. Taub told the Atlantic that she’s never met Mueller, that she didn’t respond to the email, and that she forwarded the email to Mueller’s office.
  • Finally, last night, Wohl tweeted: “Several media sources tell me that a scandalous story about Mueller is breaking tomorrow. Should be interesting. Stay tuned!” Various journalists who received the “Lorraine” email then started tweeting about it, and opining that it was shady and unconvincing.

This was an embarrassingly thin scam

This caused the whole matter to spill out into public, and internet sleuths began to dig into Surefire Intelligence, the supposed private intelligence company investigating these allegations.

Wohl was publicly cagey about his involvement in Surefire or the plot generally. But Burkman freely told Hill Reporter that “Surefire is a real company” run by “Jacob Wohl.” And after journalists and online researchers got to work, it started to look like Surefire was ... Jacob Wohl, and only Jacob Wohl.

So, it looks like Surefire is essentially Better Call Saul’s Jimmy McGill doing a series of different voices over the phone to convince prosecutors that a whole church congregation supports his client. It is not clear if Burkman, who insisted Surefire was “real,” is also being tricked, or if he is a willing participant in this scam.

Nonetheless, on Tuesday afternoon, the far-right conspiracist website Gateway Pundit, for which Wohl writes, posted a heavily redacted document making a rape allegation against Mueller. The name of the document’s author was blacked out, but it used a slogan that was also on the Surefire website. Then, after much Twitter mockery, Gateway Pundit’s Jim Hoft took the document down and said he was “looking into” the “serious allegations against Jacob Wohl.”

Now, it’s in the FBI’s hands. “When we learned last week of allegations that women were offered money to make false claims about the Special Counsel, we immediately referred the matter to the FBI for investigation,” Mueller’s spokesperson said in a statement Tuesday.

If this is just trolling, then it sort of worked

Wohl may end up being the ultimate loser in this scenario, depending on what the FBI finds. But if the purpose of the scam was as much to troll journalists as to smear Mueller and the investigation, then in a way, he’s already won.

Yes, Mueller’s office commented on the allegations and “made news” by saying they’d referred the allegations to the FBI. Still, NBC News, the Atlantic, the Daily Beast, BuzzFeed News, the New York Times, and several other media outlets (including, now, Vox) wrote articles about this nonsense — if only to debunk Wohl’s claims. By doing so, they devoted scarce journalistic resources to this topic rather than others, just days before the midterm elections.

Burkman still claims that this Thursday he will reveal “the first” of Mueller’s victims at a press conference. If this is anything like his previous hyped press conferences, it will be a dud. But if on some level trolls just want to steal the spotlight and change the subject, then the plan succeeded.