A false claim bubbled up from the internet last month that Sen. Kamala Harris, the recently announced presidential candidate, wasn’t eligible for election because she had immigrant parents and spent part of her childhood in Canada. The claim, an echo of the “birther” conspiracy that trailed President Barack Obama, was widely debunked but still addressed seriously by mainstream news pundits, including CNN’s Chris Cuomo.
Even better for Jacob Wohl, the 21-year-old Californian who ignited the Harris birther claim with a tweet, some people actually seemed to accept it as fact.
“The believability stuck at about 15 to 18 percent by my measurement,” Wohl said in an interview shortly afterward, declaring it “not a bad campaign.”
Wohl, a self-professed “political and corporate intel consultant” and supporter of President Donald Trump, is dedicated to plying the malleable fringe of the electorate with dubious claims and disinformation schemes.
Amplifying him in that quest are his links to the world’s loudest Twitter cheerleader, Trump. Wohl’s father, attorney David Wohl, says that as a Trump surrogate he was on calls with the 2016 presidential candidate daily. David Wohl has regularly appeared on cable news networks to promote the president and his policies.
Trump has retweeted Jacob Wohl’s praise – of the president’s economy, or just general “WINNING”-ness that the “left-wing media can’t stand” – at least three times. They appear to have met at least once, as evidenced by a photo of father, son and president together, and the younger Wohl says he has spoken to the president “several” times. The White House did not respond to a request for comment on their relationship.
On Twitter, where he has 186,000 followers and is adept at quickly responding to Trump’s tweets to gain many more eyeballs, Wohl has claimed, without evidence, that Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsberg is secretly dead or in a vegetative state and that pipe bombs sent to prominent Democrats and media outlets were a left-wing “false flag” operation.
He flew to Minnesota last week to “investigate” the rumor that Somali-American Rep. Ilhan Omar married her brother, a mission for which he tried to fund-raise $25,000 from his online followers. Wohl’s trip to the heartland devolved into bizarre tweets in which he suggested that Minneapolis was so overrun by Somali jihadists that he had to wear a bulletproof vest and travel with a team of “security professionals.”
Wohl’s most prominent gambit was also his most disastrous: an apparent sloppy attempt to accuse Trump's nemesis special counsel Robert Mueller of sexual misconduct days before the midterm elections in November. His actions were referred to the FBI for potential criminal investigation. The woman he named as a credible accuser of the special prosecutor, Carolyne Cass, recently told USA TODAY that Wohl “made it up,” deceived her with a false identity and tried to coerce her to appear at a news conference against her will.
Wohl initially maintained that Cass's allegations were credible. When told that Cass said they were inaccurate, Wohl then claimed that he couldn’t speak about the situation because of a legal non-disclosure agreement with Cass, who denied that such an agreement exists. An FBI spokesperson declined to comment on whether the agency was investigating the episode.
Deciphering the Mueller saga is characteristic of how difficult it is to grasp at the truth with Wohl, who represents a political moment in which even the most basic facts are in dispute.
In some ways, Wohl is simply carrying on the dubious American tradition of deceit in politics, said Kathleen Hall Jamieson, a communications professor at the University of Pennsylvania and author of “Cyberwar: How Russian Hackers and Trolls Helped Elect a President.” Jamieson described 19th-century political operatives who would secretly buy newspapers to dictate coverage, and the dissemination of false accounts about President Andrew Johnson being a murderer.
The difference now, she said, is that the internet has democratized that deceit. It’s more difficult online to determine the source of a claim, a major factor in deciding whether to believe it. Being repeatedly bombarded with a claim – social media’s specialty –increases its perceived accuracy, even if it’s false and has been publicly debunked. People are more likely to believe a false claim that fits their ideology, and the internet naturally facilitates people like Wohl finding and communicating with like-minded groups.
“It takes a real talent to figure out what kind of deceptions will gain traction,” Jamieson said, and to have both the knowledge of their demographic and technical ability to “figure out what will resonate as opposed to what will be laughed at.”
Wohl disclosed a raft of schemes he says are in the works that he hopes will resonate in the run-up to the 2020 presidential election.
He says he plans to create “enormous left-wing online properties” – such as deceptive Facebook and Twitter accounts – "and use those to steer the left-wing votes in the primaries to what we feel are weaker candidates compared with Trump.” It’s a plot similar to what Mueller has charged in indictments that the Russians crafted in an effort to boost the 2016 campaigns of Bernie Sanders and Jill Stein and hobble Hillary Clinton.
Another stated scheme: seeking to collect damaging information on left-leaning non-profits including Media Matters for America, the Southern Poverty Law Center and Right Wing Watch by offering their insiders “moral reconciliation,” and if that doesn’t work, “things of worth” – such as money.
Or perhaps those stated plans themselves are a ruse to fool the mainstream media, which he calls a “band of lying goblins.”
Wohl stressed that the accuracy of the information he spreads is “not the important part.” All that matters is how far those claims travel, and how many people believe them.
Wohl said he yearns for the days – before he was born – when conservatives would join in outrage over a scene in a sitcom and funnel that unity into other pursuits, like support for unchecked military actions. “You think about these incredibly large-scale wars that were just launched without congressional approval, and they were pretty damn good at carrying out the conservative torch, whatever it happened to be at the time,” Wohl said.
In the spread of information, he said, truth is an obsolete concept. “It’s something that can’t be thought about in a linear, binary true-false, facts-non-facts – you can’t do that anymore,” Wohl said. “It’s just not the way it works.”
Packing heat at the hipster coffee shop
Wohl chose to meet at Coffee Nature, probably the closest thing to a hipster coffee shop in his resident Orange County, in a nod to the tweets that gained him fame and derision before he was best known for allegedly trying to catfish the special counsel.
Since last year, Wohl has more than a dozen times claimed on Twitter to have overheard liberals in hipster coffee shops sharing pro-Trump secrets with one another, such as that they were actually overjoyed by Supreme Court Justice Brett Kavanaugh’s confirmation. The tweets conjure up the image of Wohl furtively eavesdropping on surrounding patrons from behind the foam of an oat milk cappuccino.
He arrived at the Orange County cafe in a black Corvette with new-car paper license plates and extended a rigid hand but did not shake when a reporter grasped it. Sipping a free cup of ice water, the thin, severe-featured Wohl, who speaks in clipped verbiage, quickly worked into conversation that he was carrying a concealed firearm in response to the “voluminous left-wing threats” he has received.
Wohl explained that he picks on bohemian coffee shops because he sees them as the “Temple Mount” of liberalism and calculated that “if you in any way impugn the sanctity of the hipster coffee shop, it’s going to be something that gets them really charged up.” In describing his methods, Wohl casually explained that he makes it up: “I’ll literally hear one thing and I’ll flip it 180 degrees.”
Wohl said he was eager to correct the record on the Mueller episode, in which his apparent efforts to disgrace Trump’s foremost adversary ended up unraveling into one of the weirdest major news stories in a cycle full of them.
It started with emails received by several news outlets in which the sender claimed an intelligence company had tried to pay her to accuse Mueller of sexual misdeeds. A professor produced emails showing that she had also been approached for information by the company. Reporters followed a bizarre online trail to reveal that Wohl was behind the intelligence company, which seemed to be staffed by an office full of imagined employees. Wohl and his partner in the episode, Republican lobbyist and conspiracy theorist Jack Burkman, then announced a news conference devolving into farce when a woman who they said was going to make allegations against Mueller didn’t show up.
The result of the Elmore Leonard-esque plot was a media cycle of ridicule for Wohl. One outlet’s headline read: “Fabricated Mueller Smear Appears to Have Come From Comically Inept Far-Right Internet Person.” The special prosecutor’s office broke its customary silence to announce that it had referred the scheme to the FBI for criminal investigation.
Wohl claimed at the coffee shop, however, that a goal of his scheme had been to trick journalists into thinking that he had offered to pay for dirt on Mueller, so he made up a person and sent those allegations to media outlets. On his phone, he scrolled through emails from reporters at major outlets like The Washington Post, The New York Times and Buzzfeed who had tried to garner more information from a person who he says did not actually exist.
He described these emails-- of reporters doing their due diligence-- as trophies from a logic-stretching plan that had as the ultimate goal getting reporters to go to a news conference at a D.C.-area Holiday Inn. “The real allegations against Mueller would have been ignored … had we not roped the media into attending the press conference,” Wohl said.
But those “real allegations” appear to be even more problematic. At the news conference, Wohl distributed a document that was digitally signed, purportedly by the absent accuser Carolyne Cass, in which she said she had been sexually assaulted by Mueller in New York in 2010. In the interview this month, Wohl referred to Cass as a “real accuser” and called her allegations credible.
But when reached by USA TODAY, 34-year-old Carolyne Cass of Los Angeles said Wohl, whom she met on Craigslist, had tricked her by pretending to be an investigator named Matthew Cohen who was trained by Israeli intelligence forces and agreed to help her with “unscrupulous characters ripping me off.”
Cass said she paid the man she knew as Cohen $2,000, for which he did no work but instead offered her the prospect of employment at his intelligence agency and had her speak on the phone to people whose identities she now believes Wohl fabricated.
Cass said it ultimately became clear that Cohen and his associates, imaginary or otherwise, “needed a credible female to put on the line” for false allegations about Mueller. “They made it up,” Cass said of the document accusing Mueller, which was passed around at the news conference. “They wrote it and docu-signed it.”
She claimed Cohen tried to get her to speak at the news conference but she “escaped” and learned only as the scheme exploded that Cohen was in fact Wohl. “He completely lied to me,” Cass said.
Wohl had as recently as this month referred to Cass while speaking in detail about the Mueller episode. But when asked about Cass’s version of events, Wohl said he could not speak further because he had signed a non-disclosure agreement with her and “can’t violate any confidences.” Cass said no such agreement existed.
Burkman also refused to discuss his role in the Mueller scheme.
Both Wohl and Cass say they have not been contacted by the FBI. Stanford Law School professor Robert Weisberg said Wohl’s actions could be construed by a federal prosecutor as wire fraud, obstruction of justice or conspiracy – or as possibly violating various state statutes – but likely fell into a legal “gray zone.”
“The whole thing smacks of illegality and nefariousness and deception, but it still needs to have an anchor in criminal statute,” Weisberg said.
Tax liens and exotic birds
Wohl said he didn’t decide to fully apply his “talents” to politics until the rise of Trump, who he describes as a political soulmate in both ideology and tactics. But he said his political awakening came in 2008, when he was in fifth grade and watched Obama’s inauguration with great trepidation for what it meant for the national debt.
Despite his stated concern for fiscal responsibility, public records suggest that both Jacob and his television pundit father have had their own turbulent financial histories.
A search of television appearances shows that David Wohl – who was admitted to the California bar in 1989 and works largely in criminal defense – has been an analyst on Fox News and other cable stations for more than a decade, and his appearances have shifted from that of a legal expert to a fervent defender of the then-candidate and president.
Like his son, David Wohl has promoted conspiracy theories including that the pipe bombs sent to Democrats and media outlets, for which a Trump supporter in Florida was arrested, were a hoax.
In a brief interview, David Wohl said he had daily conference calls with Trump to hone messaging during the campaign. A spokesman for Trump’s campaign didn’t respond to a request for comment on the elder Wohl’s role.
A search of public records shows that at least a dozen times since 1995, David Wohl has been the subject of state and federal tax liens in California’s Orange and Riverside Counties. Most recently, the IRS named him and his wife in a property lien for $22,002.31 for back income taxes. Though several of the past liens were marked as released, or paid off, the most recent lien was not shown to have been released.
In divorce filings last year, David Wohl’s wife, Michelle, said that he spends money on guitars, watches, firearms, tickets to concerts and sporting events and a recently purchased “exotic bird" costing $8,000 to $10,000 while “I struggle to make ends meet and live from paycheck to paycheck.”
David Wohl said he had no knowledge of tax liens against him and called this article a "hit piece. ... Trump calls you guys out for (stuff) like this."
He said that he and his wife have since reconciled and that her claims in the divorce were "extreme exaggerations" and "garbage."
"I don't have my lawyer file documents that are garbage," Michelle Wohl said when reached for comment, adding that her filings were under penalty of perjury.
Jacob Wohl’s own history with money got off to a rocky start when, as a teenage hedge fund trader, he was investigated by multiple regulatory bodies in 2016.
The Arizona Corporation Commission and National Futures Association (NFA) investigated allegations including that Wohl and his partner had failed to pay back an investor, did not accurately present the risk of their investments and claimed that they had been in business for 35 years when neither of them had been alive that long.
Wohl father and son teamed up to fend off the regulators. David Wohl said he called the Los Angeles Police Department to report financial investigators for stalking them. Jacob Wohl declared in filings that his treatment by NFA investigators was evidence of the organization’s “broader culture of harassment, stalking and thuggery.”
The Arizona Corporation Commission ordered Wohl to no longer trade securities or provide investment advisory services in the state and to pay just under $33,000 in restitution. The NFA permanently barred Wohl. According to Wohl, the U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission also investigated him and declined to pursue enforcement action. The commission declined to comment.
Wohl said he ultimately sold his half of his financial business to his partner. He maintained that there was “nothing even remotely illegal” about his financial enterprise, saying his father “wasn’t going to let me run a rogue hedge fund.”
As he has in his political schemes, Wohl displayed glee for high stakes, calling his financial career “a good experience” and remarking: “Who gets to go through a SEC investigation at age 18?”
A threat from Avenatti
While describing his recent professional work – a vague resume involving doing “corporate intelligence” for a Los Angeles businessman he won’t name and helping Republican lobbyists “butt out other lobbyists” by gathering information for them – Wohl’s phone began buzzing with the screen reading “Dad.”
He learned in the ensuing phone conversation that Michael Avenatti, the California attorney who has turned his representation of porn star Stormy Daniels into full-time work as a Trump antagonist, had tweeted at Wohl: “I am coming for you.”
Avenatti had been under investigation by Los Angeles authorities for an alleged domestic violence incident and had suggested that Wohl was involved in setting him up. Upon learning that criminal charges would not be forthcoming, Avenatti celebrated with the vengeful tweet.
Wohl responded by retreating to the bathroom of the hipster coffee shop, where he retweeted his father’s message that they would be reporting Avenatti’s threat to the authorities.
It’s not clear why Avenatti has suggested Wohl was involved. In a later interview, Avenatti said he was “not at liberty” to expound on Wohl’s role. Wohl said Avenatti has “accused me of putting a GPS device on his car” and “sending thugs after him to taunt him in public,” both of which he denies.
Avenatti’s response: “I have no idea what this idiot is talking about. This child is so stupid and so hungry for attention that he will say anything.”
Like a drawn-out pro wrestling feud, the duel between Avenatti and Wohl will surely have many chapters, each one more convoluted than the previous. Avenatti vowed that ultimately, Wohl “is going to find himself in a penitentiary somewhere.”
When Wohl came back from the bathroom, he bristled at a reporter’s suggestion that Avenatti – who is prone to melodrama, has scads of detractors and is skilled at intertwining himself in the major events of a bizarre political era – is the closest thing to his foil on the left.
“Kind of,” Wohl protested. “But he’s a loony tune because he’s making provably false accusations.”