Jack Burkman, a Republican lobbyist known best for promoting conspiracy theories around the 2016 death of Democratic National Committee employee Seth Rich, found a new cause on Tuesday night: the defense of Rick Gates, the former deputy manager of Donald Trump‘s presidential campaign who is currently facing 12 felony counts of laundering money, making false statements, and conspiracy against the United States.
Or, at least, Burkman made the first of what he says will be many efforts to raise money for a legal defense fund on behalf of Gates, who was indicted October 30—along with former Trump campaign chairman Paul Manafort—by Robert Mueller, the former FBI director who is serving as a special counsel investigating Russia’s interference in the election. It appeared to be a slow-building movement. Speaking to about a half-dozen potential donors and about as many reporters in a conference room at a Holiday Inn in Arlington, Burkman described Gates as the “victim of an unfair political prosecution.”
“I don’t like what Bob Mueller is doing,” he said, later adding several times that he believes Trump should fire Mueller, who he described as “an increasingly desperate prosecutor” who “unfairly” pursued cases against Gates, Manafort, and Michael Flynn, the former national security adviser who pleaded guilty last month to lying to the FBI.
“What does [Trump] have to lose?” Burkman said. “I’d fire him Christmas Eve.”
One person who was not in the room on Tuesday, though, was Gates himself. While Gates has sought temporary release from his house arrest to attend family events, he did not petition the judge presiding over his case to let him out for the fundraiser. Instead, Gates appeared in a video taped at his home in Richmond. “Thank you especially to Jack Burkman for hosting the fundraiser, for believing in my cause and ensuring supporters across the United States hear our message and stand with us,” Gates said in the minute-long video.
Defending against the dozen counts Mueller brought will be an expensive proposition for Gates, but other than co-partisanship, it was not particularly evident why Burkman is collecting checks for the Great American Legal Defense Fund, as Gates’s effort is called. Other than sharing the same publicist, Burkman and Gates do not appear to have any connections.
“I’ve known of Rick for many years,” Burkman said. “It’s a new relationship. My role is a simple one, to collect checks.”
Other than the check for an undisclosed amount Burkman said he wrote, it wasn’t clear if the handful of non-journalists at the fundraiser were ready to chip in. Burkman said he wasn’t aware of any donations to Gates’s fund from Trump administration officials or employees of the Trump Organization, but that he is advising his lobbying clients to donate.
Even if fundraising for Gates is a good-willed effort to help a fellow Republican manage the costs that come with facing a complex criminal prosecution, the event Tuesday night was consistent with Burkman’s larger habit of jumping into major stories to which he appears to have no obvious link. For more than a year, he’s been promoting an evidence-free theory that Rich was gunned down by a Russian hit squad to cover up the Kremlin’s infiltration of DNC servers in 2016. (DC police are investigating Rich’s death as the result of an attempted armed robbery.) Last week, he held a press conference for a former Capitol Hill aide who accused Representative Bobby Scott of Virginia of sexual harassment. Scott denies the allegations. In 2016, when some Republicans were uneasy about making Trump their nominee, Burkman briefly hopped on the “Free the Delegates” movement and hosted a fundraiser that netted all of $600. In 2014, when the NFL Draft featured its first openly gay player, Burkman claimed to be pushing legislation to segregate professional football according to sexual orientation. No such bill was ever introduced in Congress.
Although turnout on Tuesday was very light, Burkman might have found at least one potential donor in Stephen Chretien, who said he works in opposition research. “I can’t comment on whether I’ll be writing a check,” Chretien said. “But I will say it’s a worthy cause.”
In the end, the only money Washingtonian witnessed changing hands was $40 in cash that Neil McCabe, a reporter with the right-wing site Big League Politics, tried to slip in Burkman’s jacket pocket. McCabe said he felt bad that so few people attended the fundraiser, which featured a modest open bar.
“He rented this room and only 15 people showed up,” McCabe said.
Burkman returned the money.