For a little while on Tuesday, a document posted to The Gateway Pundit, a popular right-wing blog prone to peddling conspiracy theories, must have seemed to some of its readers like the perfect story.
The document was not just an allegation of sexual assault against Special Counsel Robert Mueller, a favorite enemy of President Trump’s supporters – it was also an opportunity to troll liberals, supporters of the #MeToo movement, and the media.
The blog’s commenters were gleeful.
“We believe the victim…we believe the victim…we believe the victim…,” the top comment read. “Proof doesn’t matter. It’s the seriousness of the charge,” another commenter responded. A reply to that said, “Absolutely. Anyone who doesn’t believe her is supporting sexual assault and attacking alll women.” And then another: “Lol time to rub it in.”
Just a few hours later, however, the story collapsed. Journalists and internet sleuths tied a scheme to smear Mueller with charges of sexual assault to an entity called Surefire Intelligence. That firm was tied to 20-year-old Jacob Wohl, a far-right internet personality who has written for The Gateway Pundit and who was previously banned from financial trading by the National Futures Association over allegations of fraud, and to a number of fake LinkedIn profiles apparently intended to create the impression that Surefire Intelligence was a legitimate and impressive organization with several employees.
The Gateway Pundit’s founder, Jim Hoft, removed the document from his website and published an editor’s note in its place. He said that there were “very serious allegations against Jacob Wohl” and that he was “looking into” them. Hoft did not respond to phone calls or an email from CNN seeking comment.
It is still unclear exactly who or how many people were involved with the scheme, or what their motives were. Did they want to discredit Mueller? Were they trying to setup reporters in an attempt to smear them? Were they just in it for themselves?
The bizarre saga appeared to have kicked into gear over the last few weeks when reporters from various news organizations were emailed by a person or people who identified themself as Lorraine Parsons. Parsons, who did not respond to requests for comment from CNN and has reportedly declined to speak to several other media organizations, said she had been offered money in exchange for making a sexual assault allegation against Mueller.
The matter has now been referred to the FBI for investigation.
“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,” Peter Carr, a spokesman for the Special Counsel’s office, said in a statement on Tuesday.
In the email to reporters, Parsons claimed to have worked at a law firm with Mueller in the 1970s, though the law firm has said it had no records of her being employed there. Parsons said that the person who had contacted her about making a sexual assault allegation in exchange for money said he was working for Republican lobbyist Jack Burkman.
On Tuesday morning, Wohl tweeted that a “scandalous story about Mueller” would be “breaking tomorrow.”
Burkman announced shortly after that he would be holding a press conference on Thursday to “reveal the first of Special Counsel Robert Mueller’s sex assault victims.”
The Gateway Pundit, which Wohl writes for, then published the document detailing what it portrayed as an unidentified woman’s accusation that Mueller had raped her.
As the story gained media attention, Vermont Law School professor Jennifer Taub, who has previously written for CNN’s opinion section, said she too had received an email from an individual offering to compensate her “at whatever rate you see fit” for discussing “past encounters with Robert Mueller.”
Taub told CNN she had never met or spoken with Mueller, and that she had forwarded the email to the Department of Justice.
The individual who emailed Taub identified himself as Simon Frick, who claimed to be a researcher for Surefire Intelligence. Ed Krassenstein, a liberal Twitter personality who writes for HillReporter.com, said he had also been contacted by an individual claiming to work for Surefire Intelligence after he looked into claims from Parsons.
Phone numbers listed on the Surefire Intelligence website, however, automatically redirected callers to a voicemail for Wohl’s mother.
Other discrepancies soon started to add up.
Twitter users pointed out that the same Google user who had uploaded images for the Surefire Intelligence website had also previously uploaded images for a website Wohl used for an asset management firm.
Aric Toler, a researcher for Bellingcat, an organization that uses online and open source material to conduct investigations, also noted that a LinkedIn profile for Simon Frick used a picture of Christoph Waltz, an actor who has starred in movies including “Django Unchained,” “Muppets Most Wanted,” and the James Bond film “Spectre.”
And Jane Mayer, a writer for The New Yorker, noted that a LinkedIn photo of an individual claiming to be the head of Surefire Intelligence appeared to simply be a darkened photograph of Wohl. (The picture had been removed from the profile by the time CNN viewed it Tuesday afternoon.)
Wohl himself even apparently confirmed a link between Burkman and Surefire Intelligence. He told The Daily Beast that Burkman had hired Surefire Intelligence to help him investigate Mueller’s past. Burkman, however, told CNN that he doesn’t “comment on any employees or subcontractors.”
When reached for comment through Twitter’s direct message feature and asked about his ties to Surefire Intelligence, Wohl said, “Sounds like a kooky Russiagate conspiracy theory.”
When CNN dialed a number listed on Surefire Intelligence’s website, an unknown individual answered. That person told CNN that he didn’t know what Surefire Intelligence was – “it doesn’t ring a bell” – and, when asked to identify himself, said “don’t call” if “you aren’t sure” who the number belongs to.
Several hours later, phone numbers listed for Surefire Intelligence on its website had been disconnected. At least some of the LinkedIn profiles that showed purported employees of Surefire were also taken down, as were two articles on Medium promoting the company under the guise of news stories.
Burkman said on Twitter Tuesday night that “the allegations of paying a woman are false.”
Burkman is a Republican operative who has a history of organizing stunts that get him attention, present narratives aimed at benefitting the GOP, and ultimately fall apart in spectacular fashion.
For instance, earlier this year, Burkman helped peddle conspiracy theories about the murder of Democratic National Committee staffer Seth Rich when he announced a press conference in which he said he would “present a witness” who would identify two individuals who had information about Rich’s murder.
However, when reporters arrived, Burkman said the witness would call in, and not appear in person. After technical difficulties establishing a phone connection, the witness, who was not identified by name, rambled instead of providing actual information.
The press conference was executed so poorly, it was even lambasted by individuals on the far-right who believe or at least give credence to the Seth Rich conspiracy theory.