Conspiracy theories are almost always bullshit, but actual conspiracies are often easy to identify because one of the parties with knowledge of a plot cracks under the pressure or leaks information about it to others. For example, the Watergate plot fell apart largely because of the testimony of Mark “Deep Throat” Felt, an FBI associate director who told investigative journalists details of President Richard Nixon’s coverup of his role in the 1972 break-in at the Democratic National Committee headquarters in DC.
On Tuesday, another much sloppier and stupider conspiracy involving the FBI—an apparent attempt to smear former FBI director and current special counsel Robert Mueller as a rapist—fell apart in record time due to the women the conspirators allegedly intended to bribe and the mind-blowing trail of digital evidence left behind.
On Tuesday, the Atlantic reported that Mueller, who is running an investigation into alleged Russian interference in the 2016 elections and its possible links to Donald Trump’s campaign, had referred a plot to pay off women to make up false claims of sexual misconduct against him to the FBI. Two women, who identified themselves as Lorraine Parsons and Jennifer Taub, told journalists and media figures including Twitter celebrity Ed Krassenstein of the Hill Reporter that they had been offered large sums of cash for accusations against Mueller.
“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,” the special counsel’s spokesperson, Peter Carr, told the Atlantic.
Krassenstein told NBC News that while investigating the women’s claims, he had received threats, including a text message with his home address saying “You’re in over your head…. Drop this”. Yet the plot seems to have continued to proceed regardless, despite the fact the crucial element of secrecy had already faded. NBC News wrote that GOP lobbyist Jack Burkman, a well-known conspiracy theorist, was openly advertising he had supposed proof that Mueller was an abuser on Facebook:
Around the same time reporters began to be contacted about the misconduct allegations, Jack Burkman, a Republican lobbyist and radio host, began promoting, via his Facebook page, that he is investigating sexual misconduct and alcohol-related allegations against Mueller. On Tuesday morning he tweeted that he would hold a press conference two days later to “reveal the first of Special Counsel Robert Mueller’s sex assault victims.”
Over the past two years, Burkman has peddled a separate, evolving conspiracy theory that has blamed several different wild plots for the death of Democratic staffer Seth Rich, who was shot on a Washington street in 2016 during an apparent botched robbery.
Emails obtained by the Atlantic showed that the woman identifying herself as Parsons told reporters she had been offered complete clearance of her credit-card debt, as well as an additional $20,000 payment by a firm called Surefire Intelligence, “to make accusations of sexual misconduct and workplace harassment against Robert Mueller.” Parsons said she was also asked to sign a “sworn affidavit” attesting to the accusations’ accuracy.
Though Parsons said she had worked at a law firm with Mueller in 1974, the firm in question denied any records of that to NBC News, and no one seems to have otherwise tracked this person down. Burkman now insists she’s fictional. But Taub, a Vermont Law School professor who says she has never met Mueller, also told the Atlantic she had received emails from a Surefire account proposing a similar arrangement. (No one has alleged money actually changed hands, if it was ever seriously on the table in the first place.)
Per the Atlantic, Surefire Intelligence advertises itself as “a private intel agency that designs and executes bespoke solutions for businesses and individuals who face complex business and litigation challenges.” Yet it quickly became clear one of the persons behind Surefire was Jacob Wohl, a D-list celebrity Trump supporter mostly known for annoying people on Twitter.
Some context here: Wohl is best known as the number one @realDonaldTrump “reply guy”—i.e., rushing to be the account with the top sycophantic reply to any given Trump tweet. Virtually every day, he’s lining up to post #MAGA tweets flattering the president and touting whatever hot BS will grow his conservative following.
As the Daily Beast noted, he’s also a conspiracy theorist whose past includes stints as a hedge-fund manager. Years ago, Wohl fell afoul of regulators with the National Futures Association and Arizona Corporation Commission after clients accused him of fraud. (The latter entity barred him from its membership for life, while Wohl attracted additional scrutiny from the Securities and Exchange Commission.) So he is not exactly the most trustworthy character.
Wohl has repeatedly denied having any links to Surefire, which the Daily Beast reported posted advertisements boasting its elite Israeli intelligence credentials on Craigslist. Surefire also seems to have seeded blogging platform Medium with “suspiciously vague” posts touting how good it is at the art of spycraft, the Beast wrote:
Surefire is a bit of a mystery. Since-deleted Craigslist advertisements for the company said it “was founded by two members of Israel’s elite intelligence community.” The ads billed services including “counter intelligence,” “private spies,” and “ethical hackers.”
... Among the little public information available on the company is a pair of suspiciously vague posts on the publishing platform Medium. Both posts were written to appear as journalistic exposes of the company but neither does much beyond extolling its supposed expertise and impressive client list—without naming any of the clients. Both the posts were written by self-described journalists whose Twitter accounts were created in the last three months, and neither has done much beyond promote their Medium posts on Surefire.
According to the Beast, Wohl told them that Burkman had hired Surefire’s “managing partner” Matthew Cohen to assist in his quest to find accusers against Mueller. But the trail of evidence linking Wohl to the firm now includes contact numbers leading to his mom’s phone and a photo of “Matthew Cohen” that appears to be... Wohl, just poorly doctored to black out his face.
Again, this is a face that is instantly recognizable to many of the millions of people who read the president’s tweets.
Domain records for Surefire Intelligence’s website also listed Wohl’s email (email@example.com), according to NBC News.
So either Cohen exists and cleverly set up Wohl as his fall guy, or Wohl was LARPing as an international super-spy using his mom’s phone number and personal email. (It’s not clear whether Burkman was aware of the second possibility.)
OK. Still with us? Because this is already very, very stupid.
It’s about to get stupider.
For one, Surefire’s list of intelligence experts included similarly poorly doctored photos ripped off the web, including models and celebrity actor Christoph Waltz:
As all of this inane scheming began going viral Tuesday following the Atlantic’s report, someone apparently forwarded one of the accusations to the Gateway Pundit, a far-right website known for both its popularity with Trump supporters and wild-eyed credulity. Wohl, who had repeatedly denied any involvement with Surefire, posted news of the resulting story to his Twitter account. Perhaps he was under the impression no one would draw the connection.
The Gateway Pundit’s story (which Gizmodo has chosen not to link to) cited documents from a firm with an “International Private Intelligence” tagline. Those documents alleged that “on or around” Aug. 2, 2010, Mueller—then the director of the FBI—was reeking of alcohol at Manhattan’s St. Regis Hotel when he identified himself to an unnamed woman as “a cop” attending a conference in the city. When Mueller asked her to join him in his room and she refused, the story went, Mueller told her “I work for the FBI” and “I’m not the guy that you say no to.” The documents then accused Mueller of intimidating her into coming to his hotel room before sexually assaulting her.
As NBC News’ Brandy Zadrozny noted on Twitter, “International Private Intelligence” is Surefire’s tagline. Hmmm.
The holes in the Gateway Pundit’s story are obvious, and too many to list in full. But here’s one: Gizmodo found that on Aug. 2, 2010, Mueller was reported by the Washington Post to have attended and been dismissed from jury duty in DC Superior Court while in the company of an “ear-pieced security guy.” So for this incident to have occurred on the listed date, the FBI director would have needed to leave jury duty, and instead of finishing his interrupted work day, ditch his security detail to undertake a multi-hour journey to get drunk in New York and sexually assault a stranger. (By the way, a 2009 report noted Mueller was under such constant guard while head of the FBI that four armed guards stood outside a barbershop where he was getting a haircut.)
The Gateway Pundit has since retracted its story, writing “We took the documents down and we are currently investigating these accusations. There are also very serious allegations against Jacob Wohl. We are also looking into this.”
So, to recap, it looks an awful lot like a bunch of conspiracy theorists got together and tried to launch their own conspiracy, showing in the process they were nowhere near competent enough to actually organize a conspiracy. And despite the fact that said plot blew apart faster than a blackout drunk mishandling fireworks at a Fourth of July barbecue, and the key players involved were very likely being monitored and investigated by the FBI as of Tuesday afternoon, they seem to have decided to move forward with it.
It is also entirely possible, as various sites have suggested, this was never about Mueller per se and instead some kind of long-winded attempt to troll the media—or maybe pull a supposed gotcha on the #MeToo movement, which emphasizes believing accounts of sexual violence. Either would stretch the definition of “trolling,” seeing as only the alleged conspirators look stupid here. (For example, the only media outlet to report the Mueller accusation as anything other than a hoax appears to be the Gateway Pundit, which is one of the president’s favorite news sites.)
Wohl, who a lawyer might advise to stop talking, is continuing to tweet about the hoax. Specifically, that he’s not owned.
To quote the ending of Burn After Reading:
“Jesus fucking Christ. What did we learn, Palmer?”
“I don’t know, sir.”
“I don’t fucking know, either. I guess we learned not to do it again.”
“I’m fucked if I know what we did.”
“Yes sir, it’s hard to say.”
Gizmodo has reached out to Wohl for comment, and we’ll update this post if we hear back.