“Are you here to watch these guys trip over their dicks?” one reporter asked another outside Jack Burkman‘s Arlington home on Wednesday morning. To be honest, I kind of was. Burkman’s press conferences, which he’s recently been holding with the right-wing provocateur Jacob Wohl, have become can’t-miss events for several DC-area reporters.
There was the time Burkman—a lawyer and lobbiest—said a client of his would announce a claim of harassment against a sitting member of Congress. (The client never showed up.) There was the press conference that promised “damning revelations about the 2016 murder of Democratic National Committee staffer Seth Rich.” (The witness with said revelations never made it.) Burkman and Wohl next said they’d reveal allegations against Robert Mueller, which went nowhere and may have earned them a federal investigation. At CPAC, they stood with a security guard who was wearing a single Apple EarPod and said they had information about US Representative Ilhan Omar‘s personal life. None appeared to manifest itself.
I had a little extra time this morning, so I decided to see what one of these (non)events is like. This one was purportedly organized not to announce new information, but rather for Burkman and Wohl to offer a defense after reports surfaced that they had orchestrated a botched smear of Democratic presidential candidate Pete Buttigieg.
When I arrived ahead of the start time, the scene in front of Burkman’s townhouse looked more like a yard sale than a press conference. He was outside setting up, checking two speakers mounted on poles and installing some boxes of doughnuts atop a cardboard box. Wohl, meanwhile, put a large TV on a table sitting on the high brick stairs up to the front door. At one point, Burkman opened his garage door, revealing a beautiful weathered-wood canoe. I asked him if it’s seaworthy. He said he doubted it.
Wohl came over and we chatted about his intentions for the press conference. It was to “clear the air,” he said. This particular esoteric controversy involves a college student named Hunter Kelly, who recently…well, it’s too complicated and depressing to get into, really (read more about it here, if you must). But Burkman and Wohl feel that they’ve been unfairly implicated. Hence today’s event.
Eventually, a few more reporters arrived from outlets that included the Washington Post, the Daily Beast, and CJR. There would ultimately be about a dozen journalists at the press conference, which started a few minutes late, perhaps because a garbage truck was making its noisy way up Burkman’s street.
They began by showing a tweet from the Daily Beast’s Lachlan Markay, sneering that he “calls himself a journalist.” They then launched into a complicated defense that somehow involved a photo of Kelly with a Caramel Frappuccino. Responding to speculation that they might have held Kelly in Burkman’s house against his will, Wohl said that “most kidnappings involve guns and knives; they do not involve Caramel Frappuccinos.”
The conference soon pivoted to Burkman and Wohl’s plan to establish Burkman’s home as “the center for election 2020,” where the pair promised to investigate rumors about presidential candidates and present those they’ve “cleared” with what they call the Wohl-Burkman seal of approval. One reporter asked whether they planned to investigate President Trump. No need, they said; he’s been thoroughly vetted. Burkman allowed they may fire up their investigative apparatus against Republican candidates who oppose Trump, but Wohl said, “Of course we want to hurt Democrats.”
Wohl and Burkman were both wearing rainbow-flag pins, and earlier Wohl had told me that “we’re major allies of the LGBT community.” During the question-and-answer period, I asked Burkman how he squared that claim with his attempt to ban gays from the NFL. He said that was “client work.” “I think everyone’s views have evolved,” Wohl said.
Burkman, in response to another reporter’s question, said their “investigation” of Mueller is “wrapped up and done” and their efforts with regard to Omar are “ongoing,” to audible laughter from the journalists. Asked whether they were themselves under investigation for the botched Mueller smear or Wohl’s reportedly false claims of death threats, Wohl said, “We’ve never been spoken to by police.”
If any of this sounds like an actual news-gathering exercise, let me assure you: It wasn’t. Not one journalist asked a question that in any way took Burkman’s and Wohl’s claims seriously, and it was clear that people were there more for the spectacle than the information being presented. Nonetheless, through it all the pair displayed remarkable poise and confidence, which I guess is part of the reason reporters keep showing up for these stunts. Personally, I found the whole thing surprisingly entertaining—like watching the bonkers last three years on the internet come to life in a Rosslyn driveway. “The court of the internet is a very tough court,” Wohl said at one point. In real life, the assembled jury didn’t seem any more impressed.