Amid the throes of President Donald Trump’s attempts to overturn the presidential election last fall, a Twitter account opened in the name of his sister Elizabeth Trump Grau quickly began drawing attention in conservative circles.
“This election inspired me to break my silence,” its first post read. “My brother Don won this election.”
Within hours, after the profile had amassed more than 20,000 followers, the president himself retweeted it, responding: “Thank you Elizabeth. LOVE!”
But the account wasn’t created by his sister — a reclusive septuagenarian who lives in Florida and has said next to nothing publicly about her brother’s stint in the White House.
Its true author, federal prosecutors said Tuesday, was a 21-year-old Door Dash driver from central Pennsylvania who had been impersonating Trump family members online for most of last year and swindling gullible supporters of the president into underwriting his living expenses.
In all, Joshua Hall, of Mechanicsburg, raised more than $7,000 from hundreds of unsuspecting victims from across the country between September and November of last year, authorities said in announcing his arrest on fraud and other charges.
He impersonated more than five members of the Trump family, including the former president’s then 14-year-old son, Barron, and his sister Maryanne Trump Barry, a retired judge on the Philadelphia-based U.S. Court of Appeals for the Third Circuit.
And despite the relatively unsophisticated nature of Hall’s social media masquerading, he managed to amass more than 160,000 followers to his fake accounts.
“There was no nefarious intention behind it,” Hall told the New York Times in December, after the newspaper identified him as an impostor. “I was just trying to rally up MAGA supporters and have some fun.”
Hall described himself to the newspaper as a bisexual Trump supporter who had struggled to find work after dropping out of college to pursue a dream of becoming a conservative talk-show host and influencer. He used the fake accounts, he said, to steer followers toward his own social media profile — @TheBiTrumpGuy — and a GoFundMe page he’d set up in the name of a fake political organization, “Gay Voices for Trump.”
Hall encouraged followers to donate to the crowdfunding site last summer, tweeting from an account set up in the name of Trump’s brother Robert with the handle @BigRobTrump.
“I am very much a heterosexual male. It’s the Trump genes — we love women,” the fake Trump explained. “But we are trying to reach out to LGBT and other minority voters.”
There were signs that might have given more discerning readers pause.
Like the tweets from the Trump Grau account that referred to CNN anchor “Anderson Pooper” and the one offering to cover the legal expenses of anyone willing to pour gravy down the pants of Fox News anchor Chris Wallace.
Or those purportedly from Robert Trump claiming that the coronavirus was “planned and released into the world by the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation.”
There were also Trump family tweets claiming that John F. Kennedy Jr., who perished in a plane crash in 1999, had staged his death but was coming out of hiding because the president had recently selected him to replace Mike Pence as vice president in a second term.
And, on Aug. 25, the Barron account tweeted simply: “Q is real.”
But the wild conspiracies and sophomoric jokes in which Hall routinely trafficked were just similar enough to the fodder routinely spread on darker corners of the conservative online ecosystem — not to mention some of Trump’s own tweets — that hundreds of victims were drawn in.
Hall, in his interview with the Times last year, proudly claimed ownership of the fake profiles and admitted to using them to steer people to the “Gay Voices for Trump” GoFundMe page. But he denied ever directly soliciting anyone to contribute and maintained that he never withdrew any of the money the site raised.
“I would tell you if I did,” he told the paper. “I should have used better judgment and stuff, but I didn’t deliberately try and dupe people out of money.”
The FBI said otherwise in an affidavit filed Tuesday in support of Hall’s arrest. It cited at least one instance in August in which he allegedly traded private messages with a follower encouraging him to donate. GoFundMe, responding to reports that “Gay Voices for Trump” was a scam, shut down its page in December. But by that time, a company representative said, all of the money raised had been withdrawn.
Skepticism had emerged in August, when Robert Trump died, prompting some to question whether his so-called Twitter account had repeatedly tweeted about some guy named Josh in the days before his death. Hall quickly abandoned the account to create the others.
But it was the presidential retweet from the fake Trump Grau account on Nov. 20 that led to the unraveling of Hall’s many falsehoods, stoking the interest of amateur online sleuths who linked many of the fake profiles to Hall. Twitter has since shut them down, as well as Hall’s personal account.
As of Tuesday, Hall remained in federal custody in Harrisburg, where he was expected to make an initial appearance in court before being transferred to stand trial in federal court in Manhattan. He is charged there on counts of wire fraud and aggravated identity theft that could send him to prison for decades.
It was not immediately clear from court records whether he had retained an attorney.