It was an undignified capping-off of a tragicomic saga. On Thursday, a woman purporting to have allegations of sexual assault against Robert Mueller, the former FBI director who is currently serving as special counsel investigating Russian interference in the 2016 presidential election, appears to have arrived in DC for a press conference slated for this afternoon, only to immediately turn tail and flee on another flight.
This leaves Jacob Wohl, a right-wing troll who seems to have attempted to mastermind a campaign to either smear Mueller directly or undermine journalism into genuine sexual assault allegations, high and dry and humiliated. But while it’s fine to have a good laugh at Wohl’s expense – the sheer cack-handedness of his attempted smear campaign is unarguably funny – the story has some deeply troubling implications.
Here’s what we know about how it went down. On Tuesday, the right-wing blog GatewayPundit posted a document containing a serious rape allegation from an unnamed woman against Mueller. It was the perfect story for that sector of the right-wing blogosphere: not just an opportunity to smear Mueller, but also to troll the Me Too movement as well. “The blog’s commenters were gleeful,” CNN reported:
“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.”
You may have heard of GatewayPundit as the right-wing blog which was most famous as being the home, for a time, of Lucian Wintrich, a sort of junior-varsity league Milo Yiannopolous, who regularly went viral for trolling the media from his position as the blog’s White House correspondent. Wintrich was dumped in August after appearing on a white nationalist podcast.
Earlier in October, a woman calling herself Lorraine Parsons had emailed a number of journalists to say that she was offered money to make fake allegations against Mueller by a company called Surefire Intelligence. The GatewayPundit document, posted by Wohl, who works as a contributor for the site, has since been taken down after its contents swiftly fell apart under scrutiny.
Several journalists, including Ed Krassenstein, a writer for HillReporter.com, quickly discovered that Surefire was a fake company operated by Wohl, and a pretty poor fake at that. When Krassenstein called the number on the company’s website, he discovered that it was the number of Jacob Wohl’s mother. One of the pictures purporting to be the company’s staff is just a darkened picture of Wohl himself, Vanity Fair reported.
So far, so hilarious, right? There is no little amount of schadenfreude to be taken from a right-wing smear operation that self-immolates quite so flamboyantly. But while some of the details of the scam remain unclear – nobody seems yet to have discovered who Lorraine Parsons is, or even if she’s real – it’s safe to say that what it represents overall is not so funny. In fact, it is the latest in a widening campaign to undermine the concepts of journalism and truth.
Take James O’Keefe, for instance. His organisation, which is named (with no small irony) Project Veritas,attempted a sting against the Washington Post in November 2017 which went down in flames in a similar way to Wohl’s bungled Mueller smear attempt. O’Keefe hired a woman to go to the newspaper with a scandalous claim against Roy Moore, then running in the Alabama senate election, who had been the subject of numerous genuine and disturbing allegations of sexual misconduct. Moore lost his election and the Post saw through the scheme after fact-checking the allegation.
In an op-ed about the story, Kathleen Parker, a columnist for the Post, wrote:
“Essentially, Phillips baited The Post and The Post declined to play. Or, rather, the paper did what it’s supposed to do and checked out the story. This isn’t cause for trumpets and heraldry, mind you. It’s what journalists do. As opposed to what pseudo-journalists — also known as typists — claim they do. With a little footwork, Post reporters were able to trace Phillips to Project Veritas and demonstrated that her story was a fraud.”
The problem is that in the Me Too movement, right-wing partisan operatives like O’Keefe and Wohl have found a fertile playbook for their trolling operations. The bitter fight to confirm Supreme Court Justice Brett Kavanaugh turbocharged this phenomenon, cementing sexual assault as an issue that divides according to partisan political lines.
In one particularly revealing moment during that fight, Republican senator Lindsey Graham told Democrats “if this is the new norm, you better watch out for your nominees.” That statement is worth unpacking in detail in the light of Wohl’s attempted smear of Mueller. Graham is implying that the allegations made against Kavanaugh by Dr. Christine Blasey Ford could not have been anything other than spurious, because they were being made against a Republican nominee for an important position. Because the Republican default position is one of bad faith, Graham is saying that they are literally unable to accept that any allegation like Dr. Ford made could ever be genuine.
The implication of Graham’s statement – and it is unclear whether he intended to reveal so much of Republican strategic thinking on the matter – is that Ford’s testimony gave implicit permission for actual smear campaigns against the enemies of the GOP. Wohl seems to have screwed this one up, but O’Keefe’s sting operations often successfully claim scalps. So while we can have a good laugh at Wohl’s inept attempt to put this playbook into action, its wider implications are truly chilling.