When it comes to shamelessly piggybacking on a major political story and tripping over one’s own feet in the process, there is no more accomplished young man in America than Riverside’s own Jacob Wohl. The 21-year-old serial hoaxer and his fiftysomething partner in slime, lobbyist and conspiracy theorist Jack Burkman, are the Mutt and Jeff of American political sabotage—hapless ideological hit men who have disastrously inserted themselves into just about every major scandal of the Trump era. Last year, at the height of the Mueller investigation, they hatched a scheme to discredit the special counsel by claiming that he had raped a woman. The alleged victim admitted that the charge was baseless. Six months later a similar attempt to smear Pete Buttigieg misfired when the college kid who was the supposed target of the mayor’s alleged amorous advances claimed that Wohl had duped him into making false charges. These setbacks have done nothing to diminish his notoriety. Before he was “deplatformed” from Twitter in February, Wohl had racked up 186,000 followers. Among his admirers was the president of the United States, who promoted his young acolyte by frequently retweeting him and meeting with him several times.
In September, as the Ukraine scandal engulfed the country, Wohl and Burkman unveiled their latest scheme: a $50,000 reward for information that would help unmask the CIA whistle-blower who reported the president’s phone call. Their bounty offer came a day after Trump suggested the whistle-blower was a spy who should be executed. Five days later the deceitful duo claimed they would reveal the Ukraine whistle-blower’s identity at a press conference in the driveway of Burkman’s Arlington townhouse. Spoiler alert: They didn’t.
In the past, stunts like these attracted hordes of camera crews and reporters, but that production turned out to be a dud. While the conservative Washington Examiner dutifully reprinted every word of their press release, the mainstream media largely ignored it. One noteworthy exception was the news and opinion site Splinter News, which ran a withering post under the headline: “Washington’s Biggest Idiots Offer $50K Reward to Expose Whistleblower’s Identity.”
Undaunted, Wohl and Burkman continued to insinuate themselves into media coverage of the incident. Wohl says he spent two months this past summer in Ukraine, digging up dirt on Joe Biden and his son Hunter, and he has promised to reveal his blockbuster findings since September. But a New Jersey Trump supporter, Deelip Mhaske, who claims Wohl burned him in a financial scheme, told me he didn’t think Wohl ever stepped foot in the country. He showed me a bizarre video Wohl had sent Mhaske back in July when he was supposedly doing his “oppo research.” In it Wohl says the local time is almost 3 o’clock, when in fact the time in Ukraine was 10 or 11. “He might have been somewhere else,” Mhaske said, “but he wasn’t in the location where he was saying.”
Wohl is of one of a dozen social-media-savvy fanboys who became right-wing stars by embracing Donald Trump. Their all-consuming desire to “own the libs” seems to mirror the president’s. But even in this clique Wohl stands out. Fit and handsome in a creepy Patrick Bateman kind of way, he drops names of “friends” like Donald Trump Jr. and former Fox News chief Bill Shine. His father, David Wohl, is a recurring guest on Fox News and surrogate of the Trump campaign who had daily calls with the reality-TV-star candidate in 2016. This week, David announced the release of a 2020 MAGA calendar featuring boudoir photos of himself; he’s selling it for $25 and donating the money to military charities.
Jacob’s Instagram feed is packed with pics of Wohl clowning around with Trump world cronies such as Corey Lewandowski and Sebastian Gorka. They appear alongside dozens of vaguely porny photos of Wohl showing off his six-pack abs in a mirror or suggestively puffing on long cigars.
But as the 2020 election nears, the future of MAGA influencers like Wohl is uncertain. In the past year Twitter, Facebook, and other Silicon Valley giants finally started to crack down on targeted harassment and misinformation. Young celebrities of the far right are being exiled to lesser platforms such as Telegram and Gab. Wohl’s friend Milo Yiannopolous is a cautionary tale. After he was banished from Twitter and Facebook, the British journalist, who was once described as the Mick Jagger of the alt-right, could barely get himself arrested. He recently complained that he “can’t put food on the table” because he is banned from major social media. Wohl shared the comments and added: “I agree with all of this.” But it’s not just dwindling followers that worry Wohl. He is facing possible prison time on a recent felony charge in Southern California that stems from a three-year-old incident in which his fraud may have led to a man’s death. Prosecutors recently concluded what Wohl’s detractors have argued for years: The president’s biggest fan is a grifter who may land in jail.
In September I reached out to Wohl in an email, telling him I was interested in writing a story on his rise from teenage financial prodigy in Riverside to national media figure and troll for the Trump administration. He responded in 20 minutes. He officially resides in Irvine but frequently turns up in New York, DC, and tony hotels around the world. Despite his jet-setter lifestyle, it’s unclear how he makes a living. He describes himself as a “political and corporate intel consultant.” But the website for one of his ill-fated endeavors, Surefire Intelligence, featured photos of “station chiefs” that turned out to be stock images of people like supermodel Bar Refaeli.
When I finally got Wohl on the phone, he was unflappable and relentlessly on message. He twice mentioned his two-month trip to Ukraine. This was before the whistle-blower complaint was public knowledge, but on fringe sites like 4chan, the fabricated Biden Ukraine “problem” was already taking shape as Hillary’s Emails 2.0. What did Wohl do over there? I asked him. “Ukraine?” he replied, eagerly. “Just doing a little bit of Biden work,” he said, “looking into some of Biden’s dealings over there, of which there were many.”
He went on to brag about a range of things, including his supposedly gargantuan shoe size (“I wear 15 or 16, depending on the brand”), staunch anti-pot position (“I think the war on drugs should be stepped up”), his carnivore diet (“I eat a lot of steak”), his encyclopedic knowledge of cigars (“My favorite all-time cigar is the Bolivar Libertador 2016 La Casa del Habano edition. I’ll text you the correct spelling”), and his self-taught fluency in Russian: “I would describe my skills in Russian as on the border between conversational and fluent,” he said. “When I was in Ukraine for two months, I spoke no English.”
Wohl’s detractors have long wondered how he has managed to avoid serious legal consequences despite his questionable practices.
Did Wohl ever visit Ukraine? Like most of his claims, the truth is rather murky. Internet sleuths noted that the pair of Instagram photos he posted of his trip were taken in two cities that are 2,200 miles apart. Oddly, both feature the same backdrop: a patio fence. “Wait a sec,” wrote r0kkitgirl in reply to one of the photos he had tagged as “Minsk, Belarus.” “This is the same background as the Tel Aviv photo you posted the other day. Where are you?” “Doesn’t matter,” Wohl replied.
Two weeks later Wohl was caught in another Instagram lie. This time he had posted a bathroom selfie in front of a shabby-looking shower curtain and tiles and pretended it was from the Ritz-Carlton in Tysons Corner, Virginia. Internet users ridiculed his shamelessness by posting photos of an actual Ritz-Carlton guest room in Tysons Corner, and photoshopping pics of Wohl in front of fictitious backgrounds like The Lord of the Rings’s Mordor and the Star Wars Death Star.
Wohl’s detractors have long wondered how he has managed to avoid serious legal consequences despite his questionable practices. His campaign against Mueller is a case in point. In October 2019, Wohl and Burkman announced with great fanfare that they had found a woman who claimed the special counsel had raped her. But a few hours before the press conference was to begin, the accuser disavowed her accusation and ran off, later claiming that Wohl had catfished her, presenting himself as a Mossad-trained investigator named “Matthew Cohen.” Mueller referred the case to the FBI.
The accuser in the Buttigieg fiasco, Michigan college student Hunter Kelly, said Wohl planted the false accusation on the internet without his knowledge or consent. Like the Mueller accuser, Kelly skipped out before a planned press conference and quickly repudiated the duo’s allegations. Wohl insists the restaurant in Michigan where Kelly’s mother works threatened to fire her if her son didn’t “recant.” “I think it’s very sad that he was bullied out of standing up for himself,” Wohl said. Kelly declined to comment for this story.
Since he was booted off Twitter in February, Wohl has allegedly branched out into seedier forms of grift. Two women estranged from perennial South L.A. congressional candidate Omar Navarro, an ally of Wohl, alleged in August that Navarro had hired Wohl to harass them with threatening text messages and death threats. The threats to Navarro’s ex-girlfriend and a former campaign aide came from a phone number associated with Wohl, the Daily Beast reported. In response to another incident, Deelip Mhaske has accused Wohl of bank fraud. He told federal prosecutors that he paid Wohl $20,000 to get Trump to keynote a conference Mhaske was organizing. Though the appearance never happened, Wohl kept the money.
Until the felony charge was brought against Wohl in September, however, the most serious consequence of his reckless displays of ineptitude was being kicked off Twitter after he admitted earlier this year to USA Today that he was creating fake accounts to influence voters in the 2020 election. (There is also the lifetime ban he earned as a teen from the National Futures Association and an order to cease and desist and pay a $5,000 fine and $32,000 in restitution that was issued by the Arizona Corporation Commission in 2017. He never paid, according to the Arizona Attorney General’s Office.)
That Wohl, like Trump, is Teflon may well have something to do with the fact that his father, David Wohl, is a criminal defense attorney in private practice in Riverside. One of the father’s clients is Laura Loomer, the far-right conspiracy theorist who was busted in February for trespassing on the lawn of the Governor’s Mansion in Sacramento.
The elder Wohl has had his own problems with the government. He has been the subject of at least a dozen state and federal tax liens in Orange and Riverside counties since 1995, USA Today reported. Though several of the liens were paid, a recent one for $22,002.31 remains active.
“Jacob told me a few times he would do stuff, and his dad would always have his back,” says Shane Bouvet, a pro-Trump celebrity and one-time friend of the younger Wohl. Bouvet says he blocked Wohl on all social media because he has “the complex of a serial killer.” “He learned a lot from his dad,” Bouvet continued. “How to write up legal contracts. How to do law language where wording can get you out of trouble. He feels like he’s bulletproof.”
Wohl’s alleged crime in Riverside stems from the pre-Trump days of 2015 when Wohl, while still a student at Santiago High School, reinvented himself as a corporate raider he called “The Wohl of Wall Street.” A handicapped Arizona man who watched Wohl on Fox Business News, where he was portraying himself as the 17-year-old principal of a $500,000 asset fund, liked what he saw and gave Wohl $75,000 to invest. A year later the same man called in a tip to the Riverside County District Attorney’s Office that Wohl and a business partner had lost it all. The investor subsequently killed himself. Wohl is awaiting trial on one felony count of unlicensed sale of a security stemming from the case. If convicted, he could be sentenced to three years.
When I ask him about this, Wohl replies that his “counsel,” by which he means his father, has advised him not to comment. Then he changes the subject to the “big things” he’s working on, though he won’t offer specifics. “I mean ‘big,’ as in number-one trending on Twitter in the news,” he says. (Three weeks later he made national news when he tried smearing Elizabeth Warren.) It strikes me, not for the first time, that Wohl’s greatest strength is his ability to keep a straight face.
Stay on top of the latest in L.A. food and culture. Sign up for our newsletters today.