Even in the circus that was last November’s Florida ballot count, Jacob Engels managed to stand out.
Amid the Proud Boys and Rep. Matt Gaetz (R-FL) standing on a truck filled with mock ballots, Engels, 27, was a permanent fixture in the Broward County elections board parking lot, leading the Republican crowd outside in chants with a megaphone and sparking rumors about mysterious disappearing ballots.
At one point, he donned a gray wig and a pantsuit in imitation of Broward County elections chief Brenda Snipes. With a coterie of other right-wing activists behind him, Engels headed to a church, megaphone in hand, and tried to protest a rally for Democratic gubernatorial hopeful Andrew Gillum.
The attempt to stop the Broward ballot count echoed a similar effort from the 2000 election, in which a group of rowdy Republicans intent on winning the state of Florida for George W. Bush staged a protest in Miami-Dade County to stop a Florida ballot count. That moment, forever known as the “Brooks Brothers Riot,” was organized by Roger Stone, a longtime dirty trickster who went on to advise one Donald J. Trump.
That Engels would adopt Stone’s tactics some 18 years later is no surprise to those who know him. Stone, after all, is his mentor.
“Whenever I see Jacob with his megaphone at, let’s say it’s the Broward County election board, I think, it screams to me of a Stone tactic,” said one Stone associate, who asked not to be named out of fear of angering his political allies.
“Jacob is smart, media-savvy, and unafraid and loud, which pretty much describes Roger at Jacob’s age,” said Michael Caputo, a GOP operative who once worked as Stone’s body man.
Engels first met Stone in 2013, after working in various Young Republican groups. Stone invited him to cover a speech he was giving to the Orange County Libertarian Party and Engels soon entered the operative’s orbit.
A slight man with a shock of dyed-blond hair, Engels favors suits, though not with the sartorial splendor of Stone’s. Both men, however, do have tattoos of infamous presidents on their bodies—Richard Nixon on Stone’s back, and Andrew Jackson on Engels’ arm. (Engels says he got the tattoo a year before meeting Stone.) And Engels has also begun wearing Coke-bottle sunglasses that are suspiciously shaped like Stone’s own signature frames.
Stone helped promote Engels’ career, inviting him on his Infowars show. In one 2017 appearance, he praised Engels for operating a “powerhouse” website that he claimed had been targeted by Soros’ minions. In return, Engels urged the audience to buy Infowars’ brand of brain pills. “I have broken a lot of stories taking on the establishment, and I really, firmly believe that without Brain Force Plus, I would not have been able to do that,” Engels said.
Stone did not return a request for comment. But in a 2018 interview, he called Engels one of “the very best young political consultants working in Florida today.” In an email to The Daily Beast, Engels described Stone as “extremely compassionate and patient.”
The dynamic between the two men appeared to change last month with Stone’s arrest in Special Counsel Robert Mueller’s probe into the Trump campaign and Russia. With his mentor facing the prospect of prison time on obstruction of justice charges, Engels has morphed beyond his role as mere Stone protégé into something more akin to a public defender and vocal ally.
“I think Jacob would be fine with also being called a provocateur,” said far-right activist Laura Loomer, another Stone protégée.
With Stone facing the prospect of a gag order prohibiting him from discussing the case, Engels has used his connections across right-wing media to push the idea that Stone is an innocent victim. Just hours after Stone’s dawn arrest, Engels appeared on an Infowars broadcast, declaring that the arrest was “a production of Stalin, of Hitler.”
“This is war,” Engels declared.
When Stone arrived in Washington in late January for his arraignment at a federal courthouse, Engels showed up early with a contingent from the Proud Boys, leading chants of “Roger Stone did nothing wrong” as Stone entered the building.
Engels’ elevated role in Stone’s orbit has come, in part, out of necessity. According to a Stone associate, Stone’s older friends may be unable to talk to him because of the Mueller investigation, thereby giving Engels a vacuum to fill.
“Jacob has emerged in a role that was unplanned, because many of Roger’s oldest friends and longest-serving lieutenants are unable to speak to him at all,” the Stone friend said. “Jacob is not one of them. So my guess is you’re going to see a lot more of Jacob.”
Engels refused to answer questions about his work with Stone, including whether Stone is paying him and what his responsibilities for Stone consist of. But those who have worked with Stone before say that Engels appears to be fitting into an assistant role that other aspiring GOP operatives have held before him. That can prove challenging, considering Stone’s exhausting schedule and his exacting sartorial standards, according to people familiar with him.
“You make sure everything Roger is doing is done on time,” said the Stone associate, who asked not to be named for fear of angering his political allies. “Roger is sort of notoriously late.”
But there are upsides for ambitious young Republicans hoping to learn from one of the GOP’s most infamous operatives.
“Roger is extremely smart and he’s able to help you, if you’re really focused when you’re working with him,” said Sam Nunberg, a former Stone associate and Trump campaign adviser who has since had a falling out with Stone.
But Engels has ambitions of his own, which could very well serve him for a time in which Stone is not around. In 2013, he re-launched the East Orlando Sun—a struggling monthly paper he had bought mostly for its advertiser list and email subscribers—as a series of conservative websites. He eventually rebranded the entire operation as the digital-only Central Florida Post, which he uses to pursue his various feuds across Florida politics. Engels has used the respectable-sounding site to make inroads within the fringe right-wing internet. He regularly writes defenses of Stone for popular pro-Trump blog The Gateway Pundit, and appears on Alex Jones’ Infowars broadcast.
Engels also has ties to the Proud Boys, the far-right men’s group Stone belongs to and uses as security at events. He has repeatedly been photographed in the Proud Boys black-and-gold uniform. In March 2018, Engels showed up at the pro-gun-control March for Our Lives with a group of Proud Boys, and used “we” to refer to himself and the Proud Boys.
“We’re all here on behalf of the state chapter of the Proud Boys, which is a pro-West men’s fraternal organization,” Engels said, while wearing the Proud Boys uniform. “We’re trying to get back to when men were men, respecting the family.”
Since then, the Proud Boys have come under increasing pressure after violent incidents involving the group, including a New York brawl that led to several members’ arrests. They’ve been banned from social-media sites, and founder Gavin McInnes resigned from the group this past fall.
Engels has since become much cagier about his connection to the Proud Boys. In an email to The Daily Beast, he insisted that he’s only an “investigative journalist” who has “embedded” with the group and plans to write a book about them.
Engels’ ties to the Proud Boys and Infowars have built his profile on the right, but they’ve also brought problems. Last August, the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee blasted two Republican House candidates, Brad Sostack and Scott Sturgill, for hiring a campaign firm run by Engels. The two campaigns paid Engels’ company a combined $6,227, according to Federal Election Commission filings.
Both of Engels’ candidates lost in their primaries. But Engels had much more success in Florida’s gubernatorial race. In the last months of that campaign, which pitted Gillum against Rep. Ron DeSantis (R-FL), Engels showed up at a Gillum rally and started yelling through a megaphone about billionaire Democratic financier George Soros.
Some Gillum supporters shoved Engels. Video of the incident went viral on the pro-Trump internet as proof of Democratic violence, with posts often highlighting the fact that Engels is gay.
No one felt the brunt of Engels’ attacks on the Gillum campaign more than Manny Orozco-Ballestas, a 24-year-old Gillum campaign youth-outreach staffer who had been on the campaign for just two weeks before he became Engels’ latest target. Going through Orozco-Ballestas’ social-media profiles, Engels found a picture of the campaign staffer wearing a shirt showing an electoral map from 2017. Areas that voted for Trump were labeled “Dumbfuckistan.”
Engels highlighted the picture on Central Florida Post. And the Florida GOP soon called on Gillum to fire Orozco-Ballestas, while Fox News described him as wearing a “profane shirt insulting Trump voters.”
The Gillum campaign didn’t take the bait. But then, Engels dug up years-old tweets Orozco-Ballestas had made about fat-shaming, calling for Trump’s execution in 2013, and, in one post, implying that toddlers use pacifiers to prepare to give oral sex.
Within hours, he’d been fired. Orozco-Ballestas, who says he can’t defend his old tweets, is still trying to get another job months after the campaign.
“To essentially use me as a piece of meat to feed to his echo chamber, I don’t even have words to describe it,” Orozco-Ballestas said. “It was humiliating.”