First Person

Confrontation and giggles at Jacob Wohl press conference

May 9, 2019
Jack Burkman and Jacob Wohl hold a press conference. Photo by Jared Holt.

On Wednesday, a dozen reporters stood on a brick driveway in Arlington, Virginia. They were awaiting the arrival of right-wing agitator and fabulist Jacob Wohl, who had announced a press conference to address reports that his recently botched “investigation” into 2020 Democratic presidential candidate Pete Buttigieg had been a not-so-elaborate hoax.

He and Jack Burkman, a longtime right-wing lobbyist, whose home it was, had published claims on Medium and that Buttigieg had sexually assaulted a young man. (Those claims were then reprinted by The Gateway Pundit.) They attributed them to a Michigan college student named Hunter Kelly, who has since denied the allegations and has said he was set up.

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The reporters were unsure whether the press conference would warrant any stories, but had traveled to Burkman’s home to bear witness to an event that was sure to be bizarre and was almost certain to present the kind of comedic inaccuracies that Twitter loves. A flat screen television rested on a wooden table placed halfway up the stairs of the house; it read “Press Conference.”

The Buttigieg hoax is the latest chapter in an ongoing saga of half-baked smear campaigns. Deadspin dubbed the duo the “Goofus and Goofus of right-wing outrage”; their targets are often high-profile politicians, their methods are often sloppy. Last year, Wohl and Burkman made national headlines after they botched a smear against Special Counsel Robert Mueller; they claimed that Mueller had raped a woman in New York City, but the claims were quickly exposed to be fraudulent after reporters performed basic due diligence.

A few minutes after 10am, Wohl and Burkman exited the front door of Burkman’s home and mounted a podium at the top of the stairs leading up from the driveway, towering above the assembled press, which included reporters from The Washington Post, The Daily Beast, the Washington Examiner, Washingtonian magazine.

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In a brief presentation, Wohl and Burkman defended their claims against Buttigieg, which they insisted did not comprise a hoax. Burkman also promised that the pair would continue their operation throughout the 2020 election. At one point, Wohl couldn’t contain his amusement, giggling as Burkman told reporters they would be offering 2020 candidates the opportunity to earn a “Wohl-Burkman Seal of Approval.”

Photo by Jared Holt.

After their prepared remarks, the pair offered reporters the opportunity to “crossexamine” them. They obliged. When Burkman and Wohl were unable to explain plot gaps in their fabricated stories, The Daily Beast’s Will Sommer asked, “How can anyone take you seriously at this point, and second of all, you’re clearly lying, right? So, what’s the deal?” He received a canned answer about truth-seeking.

Sommer also asked if either Wohl or Burkman had been interviewed by law enforcement for fabricating information. They said they hadn’t. Sommer then asked whether Burkman’s status as a lawyer had been imperilled by his political activities. Burkman said he didn’t know of any legal complaints. Alex Thomas, reporting for The Daily Dot, asked Burkman when the last time he practiced law in a courtroom had been, to which Burkman replied that it had been decades.

When asked if Burkman and Wohl had received outside funding to engage in their attempted smears, Burkman replied, “Honestly, a lot of this is not that expensive.” He added, “Could there be costs? Yes, I would cover them, but I don’t foresee very much.”

Burkman and Wohl are often subject to internet ridicule at the hands of their detractors; the ease of ridiculing them sometimes brings them more attention than anything else. Last November, for instance, Wohl and Burkman presented their claims about Mueller while Burkman’s pants zipper was open. Of everything I covered from that event, the photo of Burkman with his fly down earned the most attention on Twitter. On Wednesday, I asked Wohl and Burkman if they believed that media coverage and tweets mocking them were furthering what they hoped to achieve, to which I received more canned answers.

“It’s hard to say. Our only client in this activity is the truth,” Wohl answered.

After about 20 minutes, journalists ran out of questions. The pair thanked reporters for their time and walked back into Burkman’s home.

“The fuck was that?” one reporter rhetorically asked after Burkman’s front door had closed. The wise-cracks and laughs after the absurd and comical event were tempered with reminders of the real-world consequences of Wohl and Burkman’s stunts.

“I came because I thought it was going to be funny, and it was pretty funny,” editor of New Statesman America Nicky Woolf told me, adding that despite the oafish presentation, what Wohl and Burkman are doing with their gig is “muddying the waters” and “ultimately kind of dangerous” to the broader political ecosystem.

Others expressed that attending Wohl and Burkman pressers was simply a fun break from otherwise grueling political reporting.

“It’s like going to a pro-wrestling match. You know it’s not real,” Thomas said.

Many of the reporters did, in the end, write about the event.

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Jared Holt is a researcher and reporter for Right Wing Watch, which is a project of People for the American Way.