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An Apparent Scheme To Discredit Mueller May Have Backfired. He Referred It To The FBI

The special counsel's office says it has referred an alleged scheme to make false claims against Robert Mueller to the FBI.
Tom Williams
CQ-Roll Call Inc./Getty Images
The special counsel's office says it has referred an alleged scheme to make false claims against Robert Mueller to the FBI.

Updated at 6:48 p.m. ET

The office of Justice Department special counsel Robert Mueller has notified the FBI about an alleged scheme to discredit Mueller that apparently backfired on Tuesday, a spokesman confirmed.

News organizations including NPR have received information about claims related to the alleged scheme. Reporters have so far not been able to verify them.

When the special counsel's office became aware of them last week, it alerted the FBI, said spokesman Peter Carr. The FBI declined to comment.

The alleged scheme

At least two conservative media personalities appeared linked to an apparent hoax that may have been designed to ensnare Washington reporters, if not also cause political damage to Mueller.

The story begins in mid-October, when an unsolicited email from a Gmail address popped into the inboxes of journalists around the capital city, including one used by NPR.

In the message, a person identifying herself as a woman from Florida describes having been contacted out of the blue by someone with detailed knowledge about her work history and her personal finances.

That person, according to the account, asks her to establish contact over an encrypted messaging application and then, in exchange for tens of thousands of dollars, to make false but potentially politically damaging misconduct claims against Mueller.

NPR attempted several times to make contact with the person to substantiate her story and received two follow-up messages from the Gmail account. NPR had not reported the account before the statement from Mueller's office about the referral to the FBI.

Then on Tuesday, a conservative website posted what it said was an "intelligence report" that included the account of another woman who, in its construction, had a sexual misconduct claim against Mueller.

That "report" and the "intelligence agency" that generated it appear to be hoaxes. An Internet registry record associated with the "agency" listed the email of Jacob Wohl, a writer for the conservative website Gateway Pundit; a phone number listed in connection with it belongs to Wohl's mother, NBC News reported.

Researcher Aric Toler of the open-source reporting website Bellingcat established that the "employees" of the "intelligence agency" listed on LinkedIn include photos of models from commercially available stock photos or, in at least one case, the actor Christoph Waltz.

The purported announcement

Carr's statement about the referral on Tuesday preceded a putative news conference that may have been scheduled for later this week at a hotel just outside Washington, D.C.

Conservative media personality and lobbyist Jack Burkman, who was referenced in the unsolicited email from the alleged Florida woman, said on Twitter that he planned to convene the news conference to announce sexual misconduct allegations against Mueller.

Burkman later posted an update that said the allegations about payment to a woman were false.

Wohl also wrote on Twitter that the payment allegations were false. It isn't clear whether the intention was to embarrass Mueller or to try to embarrass reporters who reported on the purported allegations against the special counsel.

Burkman has moved on the periphery of the Russia imbroglio for months. He reportedly bankrolled an investigation into the death of a Democratic National Committee aide who was the subject of a conspiracy theory related to one thread in the Russia investigation — a theory since debunked and retracted by some of its supporters.

Burkman also reportedly was attacked by a man he hired to conduct that investigation, as The Washington Post reported. And before that he offered monetary rewards for information about earlier phases of the story and helped raise money for Donald Trump's former campaign vice chairman, Rick Gates.

Gates has since pleaded guilty to federal charges and has cooperated with investigators, including in last summer's trial of Trump's former campaign chairman Paul Manafort.

Burkman has a show on NewsMax TV, which is run by Christopher Ruddy, a friend and supporter of Trump's.

Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Philip Ewing is an election security editor with NPR's Washington Desk. He helps oversee coverage of election security, voting, disinformation, active measures and other issues. Ewing joined the Washington Desk from his previous role as NPR's national security editor, in which he helped direct coverage of the military, intelligence community, counterterrorism, veterans and more. He came to NPR in 2015 from Politico, where he was a Pentagon correspondent and defense editor. Previously, he served as managing editor of Military.com, and before that he covered the U.S. Navy for the Military Times newspapers.
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