This week, a handful of right-wing conspiracy theorists were exposed trying to smear special counsel Robert Mueller in a plan that’s almost too outlandish and poorly executed to be believed. A fake company started by young #MAGA troll Jacob Wohl enlisted Jack Burkman—a leading figure in promoting nonsense fictions about Seth Rich’s murder—who seems to have offered to pay women to make false claims that Mueller sexually assaulted them.
There is no shortage of stupidity to cherish in this incredibly slapdash hoax. Wohl, who writes for the conservative website Gateway Pundit, told reporters he knew nothing about “Surefire Intelligence” (the company whose email domain was used to ask a Vermont Law School professor to name her price for discussing any “encounters” with Mueller) other than that Burkman had teamed up with Surefire managing partner Matthew Cohen to investigate Mueller’s past. But Surefire’s web domain was registered with an email address associated with Wohl, and a phone number on its website redirected to a number registered to Wohl’s mother. New Yorker reporter Jane Mayer found a supposed photo of “Cohen” that was actually a picture of Wohl. As for the rest of the Surefire staff, their LinkedIn profile photos were ripped off from, among other people, supermodel Bar Refaeli and actor Christoph Waltz, who didn’t ask for any of this.
The most important takeaway from the Surefire-Mueller sham is not that Wohl and Burkman are hilariously incompetent or that certain figures on the right are trying to poison the well for all women who report sexual violence, though both of those things are true. It’s that when conservatives make false claims about liberals, Democrats, and the media, especially around issues of sexual assault, they’re often talking about themselves.
Consider the concept of fake news. The term was invented to describe far-right conspiracy theories like Pizzagate and the pro-Trump clickbait-fabrication factories that sprung up in the Balkans in the lead-up to the 2016 election. Since then, Trump has employed it as shorthand for all but his few favorite right-leaning media outlets. Meanwhile, check out Wohl, a reporter for a right-wing news site who started a bogus intelligence firm to help concoct phony allegations against the guy investigating Trump, then fed the “story” to his own site, where it was dutifully reported as the truth on a page that looks like a GeoCities site from 1999. There was no request for comment from Mueller’s office, no explanation for the Gateway Pundit’s claims that the accuser’s “story are corroborated” or that she is a “very credible witness,” just documents with headers that say “International Private Intelligence,” like all confidential intelligence documents do. It’s amazing how closely this scheme—invent evidence, advance a phony story for personal and political gain—tracks with the most feverish right-wing fantasy of what goes on behind the scenes at CNN and the New York Times.
The right-wing canard that Democratic operatives pay women to invent allegations of sexual assault also looks particularly rich this week, in light of allegations by two women that men who identified themselves as Burkman and an unnamed Surefire employee offered them money to talk about nonexistent encounters with Mueller. Some Trump supporters believed Christine Blasey Ford had received money from Democrats to falsely accuse Kavanaugh; Trump himself encouraged his supporters to buy into that lie when he said, on the day Ford testified in front of the Senate Judiciary Committee, that several women “got paid a lot of money to make up stories about me.” When multiple women alleged that Senate candidate Roy Moore had molested young teens and had sought out older teens for romantic relationships when he was a thirtysomething prosecutor, the Gateway Pundit published, with no evidence, an allegation that Washington Post journalists had paid a woman to add her voice to the chorus of accusations. But the only one paying for fake allegations against Moore was the right-wing Project Veritas, which tried, unsuccessfully, to get the Post to bite on a fabricated tale involving Moore, sex with a teenager, and a resulting abortion.
Commentators on the right also occasionally say that liberals feign sympathy for alleged victims of sexual assault, when they only see those survivors as pawns in their political games. A piece in the American Spectator that ran the week after Ford’s Senate testimony accused Democrats of meting out “transparently counterfeit compassion” for Kavanaugh’s accuser and “fake empathy for the vulnerable.” Now, here’s how the two guys behind the Mueller smear are talking about their alleged survivor, Carolyne Cass, who (at least according to Wohl and Burkman) pulled out of a scheduled press conference on Thursday at the last minute, just like the previous woman who Burkman had claimed was a victim of sexual assault:
Perhaps “courage and dignity and grace and strength” is laying it on a little thick. And “some sad news” doesn’t exactly ring with sincerity, considering that Burkman announced the same news on Facebook with “Well Bob, by week’s end, our nation will know you as nothing but a sex offender,” then followed it up with a meme that imagines protesters claiming that “curing cancer is racist” after Trump finds a cure. Then there’s Wohl, who earlier this week nodded to the woman who was supposedly raped by Mueller with two sardonic tweets mocking the progressive activist slogans “#WeBelieveSurvivors“ and “believe women,” which he changed to “Believe all women.” The rest of the time, Wohl’s been tweeting about the “coordinated smear campaign” the media has launched against him. What genuine empathy, untethered from political gains!
Another one of the major right-wing talking points around Kavanaugh’s nomination was that Democrats didn’t care about honestly adjudicating Ford’s claims. “Boy, you [Democrats] all want power. God, I hope you never get it,” Lindsey Graham said, his voice quavering, in his barnburner of a question-and-answer session during Kavanaugh’s testimony. On Tucker Carlson’s Fox News show, both he and one of his guests, Trump booster and former U.S. attorney Joseph diGenova, advanced the same theory in a segment on Kavanaugh and Ford. “To them, acquiring power justifies anything,” Carlson said. “This is not about ethics or morality or rightness,” echoed diGenova. “It’s about power.”
A few weeks later, on 60 Minutes, Lesley Stahl confronted Trump about his cruel mockery of Ford’s testimony. He responded by claiming that the Kavanaugh hearings had helped Republicans in midterm-election polls, then defended his personal attack on Ford as a means to an end. “You know what? I’m not going to get into it because we won,” he said. “It doesn’t matter. We won.” Right-wing podcast host Matt Vespa wrote that the best thing to come out of the hearings was that “the liberals lost.” Whatever happened to preserving due process and clearing an innocent man’s name?
Carlson tried to minimize the sexual assault allegations against Kavanaugh by likening them to absurd, paranoid conspiracy theories. “Perhaps another reptilian porn lawyer will come forward with another discredited client who describes fantasies of, I don’t know, gang rape or human sacrifice or child trafficking,” he said on his show, referencing Stormy Daniels lawyer Michael Avenatti and his attempt to turn Julie Swetnick’s grievous allegations against Kavanaugh into a political steppingstone for himself. “Maybe it’ll be ritual satanic abuse this time. They haven’t tried that one in a while.” But the only people who’ve been accusing political opponents of ritual satanic abuse and child trafficking lately are the alt-right racists Carlson promotes on his show. In March, he came to the defense of white nationalist Brittany Pettibone, who described herself as “one of the leading authorities on Pizzagate,” the right-wing myth that Hillary Clinton and John Podesta ran a child-rape ring in the basement of a D.C. pizzeria.
Immerse yourself in the ramblings of Carlson, Graham, Wohl, Trump, and their cohort, and you’ll feel like you’ve entered an alternate dimension in which every truth is replaced by an equal and opposite untruth. Duplicity and manipulation are rewarded with money and positions of prominence, and no one actually believes the words coming out of their own mouths. If these right-wingers are to be believed, sexual assault isn’t a despicable act of gender-based violence but an easily exploitable tool for raising faux panic around enemies in high places. The true believers in this crowd of conservatives see sexual abuse as a game of political one-upmanship, one that’s being played by both sides. They’re so invested in a politics of trickery divorced from its human consequences, they can’t imagine anyone doing it any other way.