In recent weeks, several national press outlets have retailed a set of very unflattering allegations about Donald Trump—namely, that he raped a 13-year-old at a 1994 orgy hosted by notorious celebrity sex offender Jeffrey Epstein. What no one’s reported on yet is the fact that the recent round of coverage is the culmination of an almost year-long campaign to quietly push these allegations into the public discussion, and maybe make some money in the process.

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The stories are based on lawsuits filed by Trump’s accuser against him and Epstein. News organizations on the right and left have started poking at those claims, gingerly and skeptically: The allegations are beyond the pale, even for Trump, and there’s little sourcing for them beyond the lawsuit itself.

On August 5 of last year, a Gawker Media employee received an unsolicited voicemail tip from someone identifying themselves as Al Taylor, “the PR person for the Erotic Heritage Museum in Las Vegas.” Taylor requested that someone from Gawker return his call because, he said, “I’ve got some good info on Donald Trump for you, it might be very interesting for your site.” In addition to managing public relations for a museum “designed to preserve wonders of the erotic imagination,” Taylor is a former producer for the syndicated tabloid news show Inside Edition.

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A Gawker.com reporter returned the call, and the “info” that Taylor claimed to have was explosive. Over the next few months, the Gawker reporter and Taylor, along with another tabloid producer named Mike Smith and videographer Jonathann Launer, engaged in a series of telephone and email conversations about Trump.

On March 30 of this year, in order to continue reporting out Taylor’s claims, Gawker Media entered into a non-disclosure agreement barring the company or the reporter who was working on the story from publicly discussing a particular item without the consent of that item’s owner. It is typical for media companies to sign such agreements when deliberating whether to purchase material for publication; Gawker never purchased anything, or published any stories, related to the info that it received from Taylor.

In April, not long after Gawker entered into the NDA, a woman named Katie Johnson sued Trump in federal court in California, claiming that Trump and Epstein solicited sex acts from Johnson and another underage victim (named only as “Maria Doe”) while the women were involuntarily at sex parties at the Manhattan homes of Epstein and Trump. Johnson, who represented herself in the complaint, alleged that “she was enticed by promises of money and a modeling career.” (In an unrelated case in 2008, Epstein pleaded guilty to one count of soliciting prostitution and another of procuring a person under 18 for prostitution. He served 13 months in jail and has settled numerous other civil lawsuits out of court. He’s registered as a sex offender for life.)

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Johnson’s lawsuit described a litany of sex acts, including allegations that she “was forced to manually stimulate Defendant Trump with the use of her hand upon Defendant Trump’s erect penis until he reached sexual orgasm,” and that she was later “forced to engage in an unnatural lesbian sex act with her fellow minor and sex slave, Maria Doe, age 12, for the sexual enjoyment of Defendant Trump.” The suit also claimed that Trump completed the encounter by zipping up his pants, pushing both girls away, and “angrily berating them for the ‘poor’ quality of their sexual performance.”

The complaint received minimal press attention at the time. An uncharacteristically skeptical RadarOnline pointed out that “the address [Johnson] listed on the court documents is a home that is foreclosed in Twentynine Palms, Calif.,” and that “no one has lived at the home since its owner, David Stacey, died in October last year.”

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Radar quoted Trump saying that the allegations were “not only categorically false, but disgusting at the highest level and clearly framed to solicit media attention or, perhaps, are simply politically motivated.” He added, “There is absolutely no merit to these allegations. Period.” Indeed, a federal judge denied Johnson’s request to proceed as an indigent plaintiff and noted that while the lawsuit had been filed as a civil rights suit, it failed to state any claim under federal civil rights statutes. The suit was dismissed on May 2. When the court tried to send a notice to Johnson at her listed address, it was returned, with the note “no new address found.”

Gawker’s contacts with Taylor and his colleagues ended after Johnson filed her complaint in California. But in early June, Jezebel was separately sent an unsolicited tip from an organization calling itself Vote Trump Get Dumped. (The organization urges women to launch a Lysistrata-esque sex strike, abstaining from boning any Trump-supporting men.)

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“Here’s a story lead for you,” the tipster from VTGD wrote. “Last week a 35-year-old woman named Katie Johnson filed criminal charges against Trump with the NYPD/DANY accusing him of raping her 22-years-ago when she was a 13-year-old girl. I’ve talked to someone who has talked to her, and they are pretty convinced she’s legit. This could be some crazy shit.”

Vote Trump Get Dumped also included a link, but it wasn’t actually to an active court case or criminal complaint. Instead, it sent us to a letter purportedly written by Johnson to NYPD commissioner William Bratton. The letter began with a jaw-dropping, very blunt allegation:

I was violently raped by Donald J. Trump and Jeffrey E. Epstein in New York City, in separate yet related incidents, at age 13.

Their sexual assaults against me and other minors, more than rapes alone, occurred on multiple occasions at the residence of Mr. Epstein during June-September, 1994.

The email from Vote Trump Get Dumped appeared to be trying to revive the allegations in Johnson’s dismissed lawsuit, but their suggestion that Johnson had filed criminal charges in New York City was incorrect.

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I responded to the email, asking how to get in touch with Katie Johnson. I was never put in touch with Katie Johnson. Instead, Vote Trump Get Dumped directed me to call a passionate, politically involved conservative named Steve Baer because “he can probably get you a call with her.”

Vote Trump Get Dumped was founded by an Ohio woman named Chandler Smith and her husband Blake. Baer is Chandler Smith’s father. He was once described by the National Review as a conservative mega-donor and “the world’s most successful email harasser,” known for sending “combative and colorful e-mail missives...to a who’s-who list of power brokers in the conservative world.”

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I called Baer. In an hour-long phone call, he told me that he was not in “direct contact” with Katie Johnson. That said, he added, “I’ve seen her on video and spoken to her on the phone. Although of course we can always be fooled.”

Baer then launched into a passionate diatribe against Donald Trump, whom he saw as the destruction of everything the Party of Lincoln holds dear. He said he and his wife became “Never Trumpers” after the South Carolina primaries. “The way it happened for us is we decided we were opposed to Trump,” he said. “We see him as a very dangerous person for the Republic. We see him as a Mussolini or Hitler type. And we discovered in South Carolina that he’s also a terrible misogynist.”

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Baer told me he learned of the rape allegations from none other than Al Taylor, who he said showed him an explosive video of Johnson outlining her claims.

In the video, he said, Katie Johnson was pretty obviously wearing a wig: “It looked cheap, kinda floozyish.” According to Baer, Taylor explained the wig by saying that Johnson “didn’t want to be recognized and killed by Donald Trump or Jeffrey Epstein.”

At that point in the conversation—and several times thereafter—I expressed strong reservations about Johnson’s story, even wondering whether a woman by that name existed. Baer wasn’t offended.

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“Even if it’s an elaborate hoax, it’s kind of interesting, right?” he said, amiably. “But I don’t think it is.”

In a followup email, he was more unequivocal.

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“My bride and I believe Katie, if I had to bet my house on her claims being true or false, I’d bet true,” he wrote. “But even were it to turn out that we’ve been hoaxed (I don’t think so), it’s still an incredibly elaborate hoax, and a story unto itself.”

On June 14, a male tipster asking to remain anonymous sent me a link to a video titled “Katie Johnson testimony re Trump—Pixillated and Voice Altered.” It shows a woman wearing what’s definitely a long blonde wig, sitting in a chair in what might be a motel room, next to a wooden table that’s empty save for a lamp. It does not appear to be “testimony” in any formal or legal sense.

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The woman is wearing a white blazer, a pink blouse, and a big, amber-colored statement necklace. Her face is pixellated and her voice is disguised. It makes for a fairly creepy overall vibe, as she graphically describes giving Donald Trump a hand job and being raped by him as an underage girl.

“The first time that I met Donald Trump was at a party at Jeffrey Epstein’s mansion. I was 13,” she says. “He basically asked if I could come over and give him a hand job.” She pauses for several long moments. “Sorry, this is a little difficult. But um, before I gave him a hand job he kinda slapped my hand away and said, ‘You need to use a glove.’ Tiffany ran over and said, ‘no one touches Mr. Tump’s penis without a glove.’”

The second time Johnson met Trump, she says, he was “onlooking at an orgy” at Epstein’s house. She was approached by “Tiffany” again and told that Trump wanted her to perform oral sex on him.

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From there, Johnson continues, she was taken to another room and tied to a bed with pantyhose, bound so tight she couldn’t move. She graphically describes being brutally raped by Trump:

I tried to say something and it was just, “Shut up, bitch!” It was basically like he was being really, really rough. I started to get scared. And he was, you know, basically like ripping my clothes off. I got freaked out. He just turned into this animal. It was like a completely different person. I couldn’t do anything about it. And he ripped off all my clothes and he started to basically have sex with me and I was screaming. I had never had sex before. It was my first time. He told me to shut the fuck up and basically took my virginity while I was crying and telling him to stop. Basically begging for him to just stop.

Johnson adds that after the incident she “just wanted to forget” about it. But once Trump began running for president, she says, she felt responsible for telling people “what kind of man this person is.”

“I don’t think he should even be the dogcatcher,” she says, “let alone running the greatest country in the world.”

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The allegations in the video tracked with Johnson’s dismissed California complaint, which alleged that Johnson was tied to the bed and raped in a “savage sexual attack.” It claimed, too, that Johnson tearfully asked Trump afterwards what she should do if he had impregnated her, and he responded by throwing money at her and screaming that she should use it to “get a fucking abortion.”

The suit also claimed that Trump threatened Johnson in the interest of keeping the abuse a secret, saying he and Epstein both said she and her family would be in “mortal danger” if she told:

Plaintiff Johnson was warned that this would mean certain death for herself and Plaintiff Johnson’s family unless she remained silent forever on the exact details of the depraved and perverted physical and sexual abuse she had been forced to endure from the Defendants.

Before receiving and viewing this video, I had spoken by phone with Al Taylor on June 8, after Steve Baer connected us. He told me that he’d heard Katie’s story for the first time two years ago, after meeting her at a party. As a former psychology major in college and reality TV producer, he told me, people were always telling him things unsolicited, even now that he’s retired from television.

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I told him I very much wanted to speak to Johnson. Like Baer, he said that wouldn’t be possible at present.

“I’ll keep you on the list, whenever she gets an attorney,” he promised. Johnson’s plan, he said, was to find an attorney, file a new civil case in New York, and then “at that point work with the DA, and if they want to do criminal charges she’ll put the civil case off.”

Johnson wasn’t out for money, he said: “She doesn’t think she’s going to get any money. If she did she would’ve done this quietly. It’s just trying to get the story out there.”

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Like Baer, Taylor had a strong distaste for Trump: “Obviously he’s a nut, anybody with half a brain knows that.” He didn’t like the change in attitude he’d seen in Trump since he began his run for the White House, he added. “Since he’s been running for president his whole demeanor has changed. He used to be a big kiss-ass.”

I never spoke to Taylor again, but over the next few weeks, Baer and I developed a routine: he would email or call with a new entreaty to write about Katie, and I would tell him I didn’t see how to do that without talking to Katie. Sometimes, I was also included on mass emails Baer sent to a round of reporters, including Bill Kristol and Erick Erickson, scolding them for failing to write about the claims.

Finally, on June 16, he warned that the story was going to bust wide open, with or without me:

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I am told that the story will break via a network news operation on Monday (without interviewing Katie, btw).

I wish I could deliver her, but I can’t even reach her directly.

There does seem to me plenty to say right now, however....

On Monday, we’ll be a month out from Cleveland and many steps closer to President Caligula.

Sure enough, on June 20, a woman going by the name “Jane Doe” filed a lawsuit in Manhattan federal court that is identical in many ways to Johnson’s earlier dismissed claim. (An attorney for Johnson confirmed to us, “That’s my client. They’re the same people.”) It didn’t break on network news, but Real Deal and the New York Daily News picked it up, along with numerous other outlets over the next few days. The Daily News described it as a repeat of the California filing with some of the more salacious and inflammatory charges omitted:

Gone from the new lawsuit is an allegation that Trump threw money at the plaintiff for an abortion when she expressed fear about getting pregnant after being raped. Gone, too, is the allegation that Trump called co-defendant and accused pedophile and sex party host Jeffrey Epstein a “Jew bastard,” and her request for $100 million in damages.

The new suit also includes an affidavit by someone referred to as “Tiffany Doe,” who declared that she was a 22-year-old party planner in 1990, recruited to bring teenage girls to Jeffrey Epstein’s parties. She says she personally witnessed Trump rape Jane Doe/Katie Johnson, and watched Trump force Katie and a “12-year-old female named Maria Doe” to perform oral sex on him. She claims that she left Epstein’s employment in 2000, and was also threatened with death if she disclosed the abuse she witnessed.

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The new suit was filed by Thomas Francis Meagher, a patent lawyer in New Jersey. Law Newz notes that Trump’s attorney Alan Garten is threatening to file for sanctions against Meagher if he proceeds with the suit, telling the site, “I don’t know of any attorney in this country worthy of being admitted by any bar who would sign legal papers attesting to such outrageous facts.”

I reached Meagher by phone on the afternoon of June 23. He said he’d flown out to meet with Johnson in California and had spoken with her after that by phone and FaceTime. “I’ve gotten to know her quite well,” he told me.

Meagher, who is a partner at a law firm but who is pursuing this case on his own, said he hadn’t seen Garten’s threat to file for sanctions against him. “I haven’t seen it all, but that wouldn’t change my mind about proceeding with the suit.”

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Meagher got involved in the case, he said, when he read a report on Gossip Extra that said she was looking for counsel. “I saw a woman who was effectively being denied representation because of who the defendants are and it didn’t bother me.”

I asked if I could talk to Katie Johnson. Meagher said he would be happy to ask her. He also said that she is in hiding and in fear for her life.

The anonymous tipster who provided the video repeatedly emailed me over several weeks, insisting that I had a moral responsibility to post the video of Katie Johnson or write about the allegations. Publication is, he wrote, “in the interests of humanity.” He likened himself to Daniel Ellsberg, who leaked the Pentagon Papers, “or Mr. Wikileaks.”

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In its second iteration, Johnson’s lawsuit has gotten wider play, perhaps because New York journalists have a tendency to swim in a big, bored pack, like a school of fish with quotas to fill. Pretty much all of the stories note that a similar suit was filed and dismissed in California. A few note the special peculiarities that make the case so hard to report on and the red flags it raises: Katie Johnson isn’t findable, nor is Tiffany Doe, and the allegations are almost cinematic in their depravity.

All those red flags, though, that haven’t stopped stories about the new lawsuit from being widely shared on both the right and left, from people expressing horror and disgust.

Trump adviser, dirty tricks specialist and vicious racist Roger Stone is calling the suit a hoax.

There’s certainly someone in the video. The bewigged, pixellated person is telling a harrowing story: at several points, she becomes obviously overwhelmed with emotion and has trouble speaking. And there’s no question that Trump’s public attitude towards women is repugnant, and that he is said to have behaved like a lecherous creep in private many times over the years. Ivana Trump accused Donald of rape in an out-of-print biography of the man, a claim she subsequently disavowed in 2015, calling the story “totally without merit” and saying the claims were made during a tense divorce.

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But even given Trump’s moderately disgusting track record with women, the fact is that a cadre of men have been shopping this Katie Johnson story around for nearly a year, while repeatedly refusing requests to interview the supposed victim. The facts speak less to a scandal and more, perhaps, to an attempt at a smear—one that finally, after months of clumsy maneuvering, is gaining speed.


Photos via AP