April 3, 2020, 9:55

Jacob Wohl, the Trump internet activist cashing in on conspiracy theories, explained

Jacob Wohl, the Trump internet activist cashing in on conspiracy theories, explained

Jacob Wohl, a Trumpian internet figure of sorts, had a big week. First Twitter kicked him off their platform for proudly describing his plan to use fake Twitter accounts to influence the 2020 presidential election. Then he was barred from presenting at CPAC, so he was forced to lay out his latest unfounded claim about a Trump nemesis in the lobby of the Gaylord National Resort & Convention Center.

Wohl, 21, rose to mainstream prominence in 2018, when he claimed he had proof that Russia investigation special counsel Robert Mueller has been credibly accused of sexual assault. He did not have said proof. Instead, it turned out Wohl had made up the entire allegation in a dumbfounding display of abject nonsense.

Wohl is a die-hard Donald Trump supporter whose off-the-wall claims are all about standing by the president. Besides the Mueller debacle and Wohl’s eventual ban from Twitter, he was best known for tweets about how Trump should be president for life, or how liberals in “hipster coffee shops” secretly love Trump, and occasionally accusing presidential candidate Kamala Harris of being ineligible to run for the White House (which was false).

On one level, Wohl is motivated by partisanship and ideology. But on another level, Wohl is more grifter than organizer. While many on Twitter laughed at him, Wohl managed to convince some Trump supporters not just that he’s devoted to their president, but that he can expose Trump’s perceived enemies, even Mueller. He just needs money to pay for the work (like for “security” while driving around suburban Minneapolis), and then he’ll have all the information he, and his audience, could ever want to defeat Trump’s enemies and save Trump once and for all. Never mind that he’s making it all up.

The Jacob Wohl experience, in one very bad poorly run press conference

To begin with the facts of how we even arrived at this moment: Wohl was at CPAC this week alongside Jack Burkman, a Republican lobbyist with a shady past, to provide evidence of a supposed scandal involving Rep. Ilhan Omar (D-MN). They, along with a host of other people on the internet, claim that Omar’s ex-husband Ahmed Elmi is actually her brother and that she married him to help him get US citizenship.

This conspiracy theory is largely nonsensical. First and foremost, there is no evidence Elmi is Omar’s brother. Elmi is a British citizen whom Omar married in 2009 before separating from him in 2011. There is no evidence that Elmi and Omar are related in any way.

Meanwhile, it is perfectly legal for a US citizen to petition US Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS) to bring a brother or sister to the United States, making it entirely unnecessary to marry one’s own sibling to do so.

Importantly, Elmi never received US citizenship (he moved back to England following their separation), meaning that if, under some bizarre circumstance this conspiracy theory were true, the entire reason for the marriage — getting Elmi US citizenship — never actually materialized.

Why Wohl chose Omar as a target for this operation is fairly obvious — like Mueller, she is deeply unpopular with many, to put it mildly. To her critics, she has used anti-Semitic tropes and made anti-Semitic comments. And not to mention that she is deeply opposed to President Trump, and as part of the midterm wave that gave Democrats control of the House in 2018, she received lots and lots of mainstream media attention — but the right argues, little criticism.

But where many conservatives saw a big problem, Wohl and a few others saw an opportunity, in a conspiracy theory that wove together two favored hobbyhorses of the far-right: immigration and Islam. Wohl and right-wing activist Laura Loomer (best known for handcuffing herself to Twitter’s New York headquarters to complain about being banned from the service) traveled to Minnesota in late February to find the truth about Omar.

They went with Ali Alexander, a Republican operative and founder of the MAGA-centric website Culttture, which is meant to track the activities of MAGA figures like Loomer and Wohl (the inspiration for the website came from, according to Alexander, an LSD trip.)

But first, they needed funding. On the Culttture site describing the “Investigate Ilhan Omar Fund,” the page states that if donors contributed $25,000 to the Fund, the money would support Wohl and his allies so that they could “go to Minneapolis and Washington D.C. to conduct a meticulous investigation into Ilhan Omar in order to ascertain the truth of the allegations against her. The Democratic Media Complex won’t!”

And during their time in Minnesota, the three repeatedly appeared on Periscope and other social media sites to ask for more money for the “investigation,” describing Minneapolis — or as they called it, ‘Minneapolistan’ — as a Sharia law-governed no-go zone (it’s not) and even discussing their supposedly large security team that, for some odd reason, doesn’t appear in any of their videos.

Minneapolis StarTribune columnist Jennifer Brooks wrote last week on the group’s dubious claims in its videos:

And the Daily Beast’s Will Sommer reported on other attempts to seek more donations:

But after facing down the many dangers of Minneapolis, Minnesota, Wohl’s CPAC press conference — which was meant to, according to the press release sent to reporters, provide “clear evidence” that Omar committed immigration fraud by marrying her brother and “should face felony charges” and be expelled from Congress — was a dud.

Rather than focusing on Wohl’s purported findings, reporters spent more time asking Wohl about the collapse of Wohl and Burkman’s previous scheme to falsely accuse Robert Mueller of sexual assault, a plot that backfired so badly that the FBI got involved. And the “investigation” in which Wohl and Burkman had taken part in resulted in a “confidential” document that revealed absolutely nothing.

Jacob Wohl remains undeterred from a very bad week caused by Jacob Wohl

Wohl’s failed stunt of a press conference came two days after he was banned from Twitter, following a lengthy interview with USA Today in which he proudly discussed sharing misinformation (accuracy is “not the important part,” he said) and his plans to use fake left-leaning Twitter accounts “to steer the left-wing votes in the primaries to what we feel are weaker candidates compared with Trump” — a clear violation of Twitter’s rules about fake accounts.

But Wohl was undeterred, saying in a video posted on YouTube by Culttture that the ban was good for him and bragging that he was a trending topic on Twitter. Of his plan to use fake Twitter accounts to influence the 2020 election, he said, “It’s 100 percent legal, and now I’m going to have a lot more time to do it.”

Following his press conference at CPAC, Wohl was seen chatting with Faith Goldy, a white supremacist who ran for mayor in Toronto.

Conservatism and a very long history of grifters

As long as I’ve been writing about the conservative movement and the ideological underpinnings of conservatism, the continued existence and proliferation of the movement’s underbelly of grifters and charlatans has fascinated me. (To be clear, grifting and conning appeals to people from all political walks of life.)

Whether it was Bobby Charles Thompson, who bilked thousands of people out of millions of dollars in the early 2000s by claiming to be giving their donations to veterans in need, or shady schemers who advertised in right-leaning publications in the 1990s and 2000s promising “INSTANT INTERNET INCOME” or a solution to heart disease, wherever conservatism has gone, a cabal of grifters and con artists has been sure to follow.

That’s because conservatism in America is not just a political ideology, but a movement, and movements are prone to purity spirals. Purity spirals happen when the guardrails of a movement aren’t determined necessarily by an idea or a person being right or wrong, but by whether or not someone is “pure” enough by the ever-changing standards of the movement.

And purity is always in high demand in conservative circles. Think of then-presidential candidate Mitt Romney declaring himself to be “severely conservative” at the 2012 edition of CPAC, to which radio show host Rush Limbaugh responded several months later that Romney was “a very nice gentleman. He is a gentleman. But he’s not a conservative.” And in 2019, for many conservatives, true purity requires full-throated allegiance to Trump, even if you’re a dying Republican senator.

Enter a grifter like Wohl, a failed teen hedge fund manager who faced investigation in several states and was eventually banned for life by the National Futures Association for fraud in 2017. In 2016, Wohl became an enthusiastic (and often sycophantic) supporter of Trump, replying to virtually every one of the president’s tweets with fervent praise and even receiving a coveted retweet from Trump himself.

Before his ban, Jacob’s Twitter header photo was a photograph of Wohl and his father, David, with the president. Wohl channeled his pro-Trump enthusiasm into a brief stint contributing to the far-right website Gateway Pundit and a measure of MAGA internet celebrity. In short, Wohl saw the conservative movement’s Trumpian purity spiral, and dove right in.

I asked a few conservative writers for their thoughts on the question as to whether conservatism is uniquely vulnerable to grifters, and I got a wide variety of responses. “Absolutely,” said Tiana Lowe, an opinion writer for the Washington Examiner. She added, “Conservatism requires seeing human nature and economic realities for what they are, and that often requires dishing out harsh truths. People don’t want to hear tough truths, and grifters know that.”

Another conservative writer told me that the conservative movement’s inherent distrust of institutions and gatekeepers like academics has limited the potential regulation of the movement’s spaces and conversations and the removal of frauds, giving grifters the space to, well, grift.

But conservative commentator Ben Shapiro disagreed that conservatism had a specific vulnerability, noting that other movements (the fight against climate change, for example) had their own purity spirals and their own grifters. “I don’t think that’s nearly unique to conservatism,” he said. “Grifters on race call those who are insufficiently committed sell-outs; grifters on religion often chide others for failures to abide by the purer dictates of the religion, and are willing to overlook flaws within the institution to defend the institution.”

And it’s important to note that much of this was and is taking place on social media platforms; while Wohl has been banned from Twitter, he’s still very active on Instagram. Social media platforms provide a flat space for conversation with few boundaries or rules, where someone with six followers can get the attention of a member of Congress or a media outlet with little to no effort. That’s a good thing for free speech, but a bonafide goldmine for grifters.

To quote a fake doctor and serial fabulist who fooled dozens of publications into publishing his fake studies, “Reality is inflatable and everything is part of the game.”


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