Mueller, False Flags, and Conspiracy Theories

by Michael C. Dorf

In an era in which every day brings shocking news, the most bizarre story of the last few days has to be the apparent plot against Robert Mueller. For those of you who may have missed it, I'll try to summarize and then provide a big-picture observation.

(1) A woman calling herself Lorraine Parsons emailed reporters claiming that she had been approached by a man with an English accent, Bill Christensen, who had offered to pay her $60,000 to accuse Mueller of having sexually harassed her when she worked at his law firm. The woman went on to say, however, that Mueller was "always very polite to [her] and was never inappropriate,” thus indicating that the payment offer was part of a plot by Trump supporters to smear Mueller.

(2) But the NY Times reports that it could not find anyone named Lorraine Parsons who had ever worked at Mueller's old firm. So was this actually a false-flag operation by some left-leaning group hoping to discredit the right by making it look like the right was offering money for false stories against Trump?

(3) If this was indeed a left-wing plot posing as a right-wing plot, it was a terrible idea--and not just because as a general matter no one should do this sort of thing, regardless of their motives. It's a terrible idea because it undercuts the #MeToo Movement, one element of which is the (correct) claim that the problem of women who have been victims of sexual harassment or abuse not being believed is a bigger problem than false accusations. Yet one takeaway from the story is: See! Politically motivated people will use fake allegations to get at their enemies.

(4) And there's some evidence that the plot actually emanated from the right. A Trump-supporting 20-year-old troll tweeted the following on early Tuesday morning, before the story had broken: "Several media sources tell me that a scandalous story about Mueller is breaking tomorrow. Should be interesting. Stay tuned!" Numerous commentators have suggested that the troll was behind the plot itself.

(5) But why? Was his plan to get people to think that the person coming forward saying Mueller never harassed her was actually a shady character and therefore that--what?--that Mueller actually did harass someone? That the left are dirty tricksters?

(6) Or was the 20-year-old troll's implication of another right-wing conspiracy theorist evidence that they had cooked up the plot together? Or that this was a case of troll-on-troll hoaxing (as floated in this Vox story)?

Let me suggest that the answers to none of the foregoing questions matters. The key point is that, whether by design or luck, right-wing trolls accomplished a number of things:

(a) They cast some doubt on #MeToo along the lines of (3) above;

(b) They planted doubts about Mueller in the minds of some people who were only vaguely paying attention. Didn't I hear something about Mueller being accused of sexual harassment?, one can imagine someone wondering a week or a year from now.

(c) Moreover, the association of a story involving Mueller with false allegations, even though the story should cast no doubt on Mueller's conduct, is useful in further pushing the Trumpian narrative that Mueller's entire investigation is fake, partisan, and tainted.

(d) The very fact that the whole plot seems to make no sense from any perspective feeds conspiracy theories. When the world is bewildering, people are tempted to think that hidden forces must be pulling the strings. The conspiracy itself need not make any sense. Think about the fact that many anti-Semites believed that a cabal of Jews was behind both capitalism and communism. Because the whole purpose of the conspiracy theory is to explain the unexplainable, obvious inconsistencies can simply be taken as evidence of the depth of the conspiracy.

Making sense of the plot to discredit Mueller may be impossible, but if so, that won't prove that it failed in its nefarious goals.

Postscript Update: It now appears as though the original scheme and the email from the mysterious Parsons may have originated from different sources, perhaps working at cross-purposes. Also, it now appears that the trolls behind this scheme are incompetent, even at being trolls. That doesn't undercut the effectiveness of a broader strategy of sowing confusion.