Special counsel Robert Mueller last week asked the FBI to investigate a possible scam in which a woman would make false claims that he was guilty of sexual misconduct and harassment, after several political reporters were contacted about doing a story on the alleged misconduct.
Multiple reporters were contacted over the past few weeks by a woman who said she had been offered money to say she had been harassed by Mueller, the special counsel who is probing possible collusion between the Trump campaign and Russia. After investigating, according to the political website Hill Reporter, the reporters each independently determined the allegations of misconduct and harassment were likely a hoax and that it was unclear if the woman had been offered money to make the claim. The reporters then contacted the special counsel's office to report that they had been approached about the scheme.
"When we learned last week of allegations that women were offered money to make false claims about the special counsel, we immediately referred the matter to the FBI for investigation," said Peter Carr, spokesman for the special counsel.
While investigating the possibility of a hoax, the Hill Reporter's Ed Krassenstein, who was one of the reporters contacted, said he received threats, including a text message reading, "You're in over your head…. Drop this" which included his and another editor's home addresses.
Around the same time reporters began to be contacted about the misconduct allegations, Jack Burkman, a Republican lobbyist and radio host, began promoting, via his Facebook page, that he is investigating sexual misconduct and alcohol-related allegations against Mueller. On Tuesday morning he tweeted that he would hold a press conference two days later to "reveal the first of Special Counsel Robert Mueller's sex assault victims."
Over the past two years, Burkman has peddled a separate, evolving conspiracy theory that has blamed several different wild plots for the death of Democratic staffer Seth Rich, who was shot on a Washington street in 2016 during an apparent botched robbery.
Krassenstein told NBC News he reached out to the special counsel's office on Tuesday telling them what he knew about the scheme.
He also gave NBC News the phone numbers used by the woman alleging she was offered money to make the allegations, which were both disconnected.
The woman allegedly worked at the law firm Pillsbury, Madison and Sutro at the same time as Mueller in 1974. Reporters say she said she was supposed to claim the misconduct took place during that period. NBC News gave the woman's name to a spokesperson for the law firm, which is now called Pillsbury Winthrop Shaw Pittman LLP. In a statement, the spokesperson said, "We have no record of this individual working for our firm."
Krassenstein and other journalists also pointed to Jacob Wohl, a disgraced hedge fund manager turned pro-Trump conspiracy theorist and Surefire Intelligence, a company connected to him, as being involved with Burkman's alleged plot.
"I gave Burkman a call. I wanted to know who 'Surefire Intelligence' is. That's when he told me about Jacob Wohl," said Krassenstein. "To me, this was all a setup from somebody trying to discredit the media."
Early this morning, Wohl tweeted, "Several media sources tell me that a scandalous story about Mueller is breaking tomorrow. Should be interesting. Stay tuned!"
Reached by direct message on Twitter, Wohl denied having a hand in any plot to pay women making false allegations against Mueller. "I don't have any involvement in any investigations of any kind. I'm not quite that cool," he said.
The allegations still took off as far-right news sites tied to Wohl and known for spreading fake news and disinformation published viral posts. Gateway Pundit, where Wohl is employed as a writer, touted their "exclusive documents" about a "very credible witness."
In a statement, Surefire Intelligence tweeted that it "does not comment on current, past or future operations, nor the lack thereof."
Wohl declined to comment on his involvement with Surefire Intelligence. However, his email is listed in the domain records for Surefire Intelligence's website and calls to a number listed on the Surefire Intelligence website went to a voicemail message that provided another phone number, listed in public records as belonging to Wohl's mother.
Wohl stopped responding to NBC News after being told Surefire's official phone number redirects to his mother's voicemail.
A few hours later, the Gateway Pundit published what it called "exclusive documents" it had obtained of an alleged sexual misconduct accusation against Mueller. The documents were partially redacted, but the top of each page included the phrase "International Private Intelligence" below a shorter, redacted line. International Private Intelligence is the slogan of Surefire Intelligence on the company's website.
The open-source intelligence group Bellingcat pulled apart the construction of the company's online presence. It found that someone with the email address firstname.lastname@example.org was involved in the domain registration of the Surefire Intelligence website and that many of the LinkedIn profiles of people who reportedly worked there used stolen, edited photos of models as their profile images. One featured a photo of Israeli supermodel Bar Rafaeli. In another case, a fictitious profile of a Surefire financial investigator in Zurich had a black and white image of actor Christoph Waltz as its profile photo.
Gateway Pundit has now posted a message on its site that says, "Earlier today we were given information on accusations against former FBI Director Robert Mueller. We took the documents down and are currently investigating these accusations. There are also serious allegations against Jacob Wohl. We are also looking into this."
"There is still a press conference scheduled for Thursday at noon in Washington, D.C."