On Tuesday, POLITICO published a nearly 2400-word exposé on a “catfishing” attempt by a convicted con man against anti-Trump political professionals.
In a campaign season marked by the mind-bending, the — until now unreported —caper of Wessel’s months-long “catfishing” of operatives Rick Wilson, Liz Mair and Cheri Jacobus ranks among more bizarre episodes. It could get more bizarre still. The targets of the scheme do not believe that Wessel, described by his own lawyer as mentally ill, was acting alone. This month Jacobus, who said she believes Wessel was working in concert with allies of Trump, renewed her efforts to get the FBI to investigate the scheme.
Someone claiming to be “Meagan Lancaster,” a British solicitor with ties to rich American clients, contacted Cheri Jacobus on Twitter, plying her with gifts and promises of cash for anti-Trump efforts and Carly Fiorina’s campaign. All the while, @JustBeingMeagan pushed for information on what Jacobus and others were planning against Trump.
Eventually, Jacobus passed Lancaster along to Liz Mair and Rick Wilson. There was no Lancaster or the other cast of characters shooting emails and asking questions. They were the invention of a New York con man who previously bilked marks out of $750,000.
Steven Wessel, federal prisoner register number 53143-054, a 58-year-old white male, is in residence at FCI Butner Low, nestled in the trees about 10 miles north of Durham, N.C.. From its website, the place looks more like a community college than a low security prison–except for the razor wire of course.
Wessel won’t be released until 2020, but he’s not locked up for what he did to Jacobus and Mair. He was out on bail after his New York fraud conviction, which a judge promptly revoked when Jacobus brought his latest antics to the attention of the FBI.
POLITICO’s write-up made Wessel seem like a really dumb version of Danny Ocean collecting intelligence on anti-Trump operatives.
[Rick] Wilson, one of Trump’s most outspoken Republican critics and the head of a super PAC that opposed the New York billionaire during the primaries, said that only a political professional would think to pump him for the information Wessel sought about his PAC. “The questions were of such a degree of granularity and specificity and political acumen that unless [Wessel] had political experience it would be hard for him to come up with them,” he said.
Mair ran the super PAC Make America Awesome (the one that published those photos of Melania that Trump accused Ted Cruz of being behind). She said she wasn’t fooled by Wessel, and she doesn’t think Wilson was either. In an email, she told me her side of the story.
Mair has dual citizenship–she’s a Brit. And she was a solicitor (lawyer) there, who “studies Tudor and Wars of the Roses history in her spare time.”
So, suffice to say that someone purporting to be some kind of a peer/daughter of someone who received honors from the Queen herself and a private client barrister specializing in high-net-worth anything, using the name “Lancaster,” who I had literally never heard of and neither had any of my friends or family who work in that exact area struck me from day one as exceedingly likely to be some catfisher doing an exceedingly bad impersonation. When Rick Wilson pointed out that all of her “pictures” on social media seemed to be stock photos, that just made the whole situation even more laughable.
So, why did Mair go along with someone she knew to be a phony?
I went along with this for awhile, partly because it was amusing and there wasn’t much funny going on, work wise, at that particular juncture, partly because I thought whoever was doing the impersonation might inadvertently reveal something interesting or useful to us, and partly because I’m a big believer that one way to beat your opponent is to force them to spend as much time and energy as possible on totally useless stuff…
Contradicting Wilson’s take on Wessel’s act, Mair thought it was incredibly amateurish. “A lot of the things he asked me were the kinds of questions that induced eye-rolling and the word “duh” or the thought “has this person ever heard of Real Clear Politics” crossing my mind a lot,” she said.
Did Wessel’s scheme work? Did he get anything juicy or even interesting? Not really.
Frankly, because we were always very public about how we proposed to attack Trump and the data we had that proved our approach would work, if anyone were prepared to spend, like $250,000 on it, at no point was there anything I even *could* have said to him that I wouldn’t have said on Twitter or live on TV.
This raises the question: Why would a convicted con man, who as part of his bail agreement was banned from using the Internet, start this kind of online relationship that would net him no money? Wessel didn’t even ask for money.
Who would use a felon, who on discovery of the scheme, would certainly be sent to federal prison? It’s the same question as who would use a hit man to kill Lee Harvey Oswald–a hit man that’s sick with terminal cancer? Someone who wanted their tracks covered, possibly?
So, with regard to Wessel, my suspicion was then and remains now that someone in the general Trump orbit put him up to it. Who, precisely? I think Roger Stone is too smart to pull a stunt like that, but obviously Trump has some pretty dumb people working for him, so maybe it was one of them. Or maybe it was “John Barron” himself. I don’t know.
Where does the trail lead? Since Wessel is on ice, only the feds can access him, and only if they’re investigating a crime. Is it a crime to go “catfishing” for information online? Is it worth the FBI’s time to follow this up? POLITICO got nowhere.
Trump spokeswoman Hope Hicks said the campaign had no knowledge of the scheme. A spokeswoman at the FBI’s New York field office — where Jacobus first filed a complaint about the scheme this spring — declined to comment, citing the bureau’s policy of neither confirming nor denying the existence of investigations.
Richard Baum, the public defender who represented Wessel in his most recent fraud cause, declined to comment on the record.
Mair thinks Wessel got cold feet at some point, but was “pushed into talking with me and Rick so as to maintain a plausible personality as some sort of anti-Trump wheeler dealer in relation to another mark.”
I distinctly remember detecting fear on the part of “Meagan” and her rich-people-wrangling “male colleague” at a certain juncture, and it wasn’t long after that that communication dried up.
Wessel is certainly not having fun in prison, but was this just a lark for him, or mental illness, or was it part of a bigger story?
I’m sure it could end up being un-fun for whoever put him up to it at some point soon, too, since I’m pretty sure Wessel will spill the beans and other people have been looking into this very seriously while for me, work carries on as per normal.
Try this on for conspiracy-size:
- Wessel lived in the Upper West Side of Manhattan, which is only 5 blocks from Trump Tower, certainly walking distance for clandestine meetings.
- The servers Wessel used for his emails were based in Englewood, Colorado, where West Public Affairs is located. Mike Ciletti, a partner in West Public Affairs, who also ran Trump’s super PAC Make America Great Again, is based in Englewood.
- The phone number used by Wessel for various fake personas was based in Colorado.
- Jacobus’ AOL-based emails were hacked and deleted after POLITICO started researching their story.
Mair noted, “Trump has some pretty dumb people working for him.” Wessel would definitely fit that description.