A Michigan college student says pro-Trump agitators recruited him to falsely claim he was raped by Democratic presidential candidate Pete Buttigieg, then published the smear without his permission.
Hunter Kelly, a 21-year-old gay Trump supporter, said conservative activists Jacob Wohl and Jack Burkman sought to use him for the "despicable scheme" they concocted to blunt Buttigieg's momentum and help the president's reelection bid. The incident may offer a glimpse into disinformation tactics, powered by fake social media accounts and partisan news sites, that could become a staple of the 2020 campaign.
Wohl denied Kelly's accusation, saying the student had reached out to him. Burkman said on Twitter he believes Kelly's initial account of the assault was "accurate and true."
Invoking the powerful #MeToo movement against a pioneering gay candidate, the allegation appeared Sunday in a post on the publishing platform Medium under Kelly's name. The post accused the 37-year-old South Bend, Indiana, mayor of sexually assaulting him in February without providing any details, saying Kelly would share his story to the nation in the coming weeks. It said that Kelly was having suicidal thoughts after making the difficult decision to come forward.
Right-leaning news sites published the claim as reporters from other outlets spent Monday investigating. But the allegation fell apart Monday night, when Kelly issued a statement saying that he was never assaulted and had been set up. He said Tuesday he wanted to help President Donald Trump but ended up "roped into a Jussie Smollett-esque situation" by Wohl and Burkman, who have spread conspiracies and unverified or false allegations against other public figures.
Notably, the two staged a news conference last year in which they claimed a woman would accuse special counsel Robert Mueller of sexual harassment. The woman never showed up and has said she was tricked by Wohl into participating in the plot, which has drawn scrutiny from the FBI. Wohl's website touts his expertise in "media manipulation" and notes he has been banned from Twitter for spreading false information.
The Daily Beast reported Monday that Wohl and Burkman recruited at least one other male Trump supporter for the anti-Buttigieg hoax.
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In his statement, Kelly said that he began communicating with Wohl, 21, on Instagram a month ago about how he could help Trump get reelected. He said that Wohl asked him to take part in a "task force" set up by the Trump administration to derail Buttigieg, whose standing in the race has dramatically risen in recent weeks. Kelly said that Wohl and Burkman arranged for him to fly from Michigan to Baltimore on Sunday, and then took him to Burkman's apartment in Arlington, Virginia.
Kelly said he was under the impression he would spend a few days helping research Buttigieg's background and trying to find dirt that might trip him up. But after he arrived, Kelly said, Wohl showed him the Medium post under Kelly's name and claimed it was just a draft. Kelly said he was unsure whether he wanted to move forward before he went to bed.
At 4:30 a.m., he said that he sent Wohl a message on the encrypted messaging app Signal saying that he was incredibly uncomfortable and not on board with the plan. But by the time he got out of bed at 11 a.m., Kelly said, the post had been published and was spreading across the internet with the help of fake Twitter and Gmail accounts that Wohl had created under Kelly's name. Kelly said he later learned the post had been published Sunday without his permission.
Kelly said that he felt sick and didn't want to be involved, but that Wohl and Burkman told him it was too late to turn back. Instead, he said they pressured him to sign a statement detailing false allegations that Buttigieg raped him at the Mayflower Hotel in Washington, which he was to deliver at a news conference.
Kelly said that he signed the statement after resisting for 45 minutes and being told that leaving Burkman's residence "was not an option." He said that he ultimately left the apartment Monday with the help of relatives who live in the area and picked him up. By then, Kelly said, he was getting messages from relatives and friends who had been inundated with inquiries from the news media about the allegation.
Kelly, a student at Ferris State University in Big Rapids, Michigan, apologized Tuesday and indicated he was considering legal action against Wohl and Burkman.
"I will not stand around idly and get dragged through the mud for two people to continue committing heinous acts in the name of 'protecting our country,'" Kelly said. "They are the real danger to our country."
Wohl denied any wrongdoing Tuesday. He said that Kelly reached out to him and Burkman after they sought information about Buttigieg on social media and that Kelly was "very passionate about his claims." He said that Kelly wrote the Medium piece himself and was pressured into recanting after his family was inundated with questions from the media.
"It's not surprising. We understand this is very tough for a young person and we wish him the best," Wohl said in an interview.
Trump 2020 campaign spokeswoman Erin Perrine said the organization had nothing to do with the incident, "and we condemn fake allegations, whether they are against candidates for president or nominees for the Supreme Court."
It's unclear whether any law enforcement agency will investigate whether the scheme was criminal. Spokespeople for the Michigan attorney general's office and Arlington police department said no complaint had been filed as of Tuesday.
Medium removed the post Monday night. After an appearance in New York hours earlier on Monday, Buttigieg shrugged off the situation.
"I'm sure it's not the first time somebody is going to make something up about me. It's not going to throw us," he said. "Politics can be ugly sometimes, but you have to face that when you're in presidential politics."
Associated Press writer Sara Burnett contributed to this report.