On Twitter, President Donald Trump is known for shining a spotlight on obscure accounts with a deep devotion to him, reposting their content on his own page and vaulting enthusiastic supporters onto the world’s largest cyber stage.
On Saturday, the supposed real-life identity behind one such account —@ProTrump45, which operates a pro-Trump merchandise website by the same name — unraveled in spectacular fashion. @ProTrump45 has been suspended from Twitter, as have a slew of accounts associated with it.
But important questions remain unanswered: Who created all those sham accounts hawking Trump gear? And how did they end up on the President’s radar?
President Trump thanked @ProTrump45 — who also used the name “Nicole Mincey” — for her support on Saturday afternoon.
Soon after, various Twitter accounts began to piece together that the ProTrump account wasn’t what it claimed.
Mincey’s profile photo was actually an image of a model advertising a “Your Image Here” t-shirt mockup company, Twitter user @Rschooley noticed. That turned out to be true for lots of accounts, many of which had posted on the ProTrump45.com blog, and who spoke to “each other” on Twitter.
The mockup company, Placeit, accused the accounts of identity fraud when the news broke, and said it would be in touch with law enforcement. It also posted a list of fraud accounts using its software.
Much of ProTrump45’s initial legitimacy reads like a tutorial in digital smoke and mirrors.
On March 20, YouTube user Pro Trump45 posted the video “GOP Shirts Available,” which shows an unnamed model wearing a “GOP” t-shirt — a “Placeit” watermark covers the video. A link to ProTrump45’s store appears in the video’s description.
On May 14, the popular conservative website World Net Daily published “Black, Liberal Woman Dumps Obama To Run Trump Store,” which featured an interview with someone claiming to be Mincey.
“I saw a financial opportunity and took it. That’s the perks of capitalism,” she told the website, explaining why she turned her popular Twitter account into an online store.
The interview quickly spread across the web. A portrait of “Nicole,” with a red “Make America Great Again” cap covering most of her face, even ended up on the “HottiesForTrump” subreddit (NSFW).
The author of the World Net Daily interview, Bob Unruh, did not respond to TPM’s request for comment.
On June 5, Mashable pointed out, the Daily Caller published a sponsored post under the byline “ProTrump45,” with the headline: “ProTrump45: Black Pro-Trump Conservative Begins Pro-Trump Empire.” The post was a mix of supposed biographical matter about the person claiming to be Nicole Mincey and arguments for black voters to support President Trump.
“ProTrump45 and Nicole are beautiful representations of black Republicans and overall minority conservatives,” ProTrump45 wrote.
The Daily Caller’s Jack Kocsis, who run’s the website’s “Daily Dealer” section and is named under the post, did not respond to TPM’s requests for comment.
A publisher’s note added to the post just before 6:00 p.m. ET Monday reads: “The advertiser story below might be completely fake, but their deals are 100% real! Get your Trump swag while you can!”
A few weeks later, an identical post showed up on BuzzFeed’s “Community” section — where nearly anyone can post nearly anything — under the byline “vccdfrty,” that account’s only posting.
On June 30, YouTube user Pro Trump45 posted another video, this time of what appeared to be a spokesperson-for-hire reading off stats about the merchandise store. The video is produced to appear like a breaking news report, glossy newsroom and all.
On August 5, when Trump retweeted @ProTrump45, heavy.com — known for its lightening-fast profiles of suddenly famous people — slapped together a quick list of facts about Mincey, or at least, the persona that Trump highlighted.
As Mincey’s professed identity began to dissolve in the face of scrutiny, Heavy’s profile of her changed with the breaking news.
Now, the website reports that there is a real Nicole Mincey — a college student who claims her identity was stolen and used without her permission. She said she would be filing a police report alleging identity theft. A page on ProTrump45.com that included the real Mincey’s contact information has been deleted, Heavy reported.
In a separate post, Heavy published the only recorded audio available online of the person claiming to be Mincey. In a May 25 interview with an radio show called Trending Today USA, she said: “I used to be a liberal, and I used to be a Democrat, and I used to be an Obama supporter, but things have changed. I realized the facts.” She said she started her store in January. “Everything is pro-Trump, pro-Republican, and it’s all made in America,” she added.
The person claiming to be Mincey also gave an interview on WVOX in June, Heavy noted. A representative at WVOX’s office said the shows aired on the station are independently produced. He said the time slot described in a web listing for the interview could have belonged to Peter Moses.
Moses told Heavy “I have no interest in this story” and said he couldn’t recall if he had interviewed Mincey. Responding to an email from TPM, Moses wrote: “She never called in and I know nothing about her.”
In a subsequent phone call, Moses added: “A colleague of mine communicated with Mincey to appear on our show in June. She never called. My colleague tried to reach out to her, and did not receive any reply whatsoever, and we moved on with the show. The reason why I didn’t remember her is because she never appeared on the show.”
And on July 4, DigitalJournal.com published a press release advertising ProTrump45, with a physical address Heavy noted belonged to the college student whose identity she claims was stolen. TPM’s calls to the phone number listed in the press release have gone unanswered.
The website Whois, which documents public domain website ownership information, records ProTrump45.com’s registrant organization as Perfect Privacy, LLC, which advertises itself as a go-between website registrar to keep website owners’ personal information in the dark. Whois records that the ProTrump45.com went public in January.
@ProTrump45 and its associated accounts would be far from the first case of political messaging-associated identity fraud. In October, for example, a pro-Trump campaign mailer meant to show the diversity of his supporters showed a Sikh man, Gurinder Singh Khalsa, below the label “Muslims.” In fact, not only was Singh Khalsa not a Muslim, nor a Trump supporter — he leads a political action committee called “Sikhs PAC” meant to educate the public about the religion. In December, Racked profiled caucasian models whose images had been used without their permission to advocate white supremacy.
And Trump’s habit of re-posting Twitter accounts with tiny followings, and sometimes no tweets except for those to which he responded, has raised plenty of suspicion. Think of it as the 21st century version of “John Barron,” the persona Trump used to call tabloid reporters and pretend to be his own agent.
This post has been updated.
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