Lobbyist Jack Burkman invited reporters to huddle around a phone in a Holiday Inn conference room on Tuesday, promising damning revelations about the 2016 murder of Democratic National Committee staffer Seth Rich.
On the other end of the call, Burkman insisted, was a former intelligence operative with an explosive revelation: government agents from the DEA and ATF were behind Rich’s murder. Burkman’s source — codename “Luke” — was about to blow this still-unsolved case open.
But Burkman couldn’t get the call to work. The call from his tipster, ostensibly whistleblowing from deep inside the deep state on the second anniversary of Rich’s death, kept getting bounced back to the phone at the reception desk at the Northern Virginia hotel. Burkman scrambled out of the room, leaving reporters and Burkman’s online audience — watching live from a variety of livestreams operated by fringe internet personalities — wondering what exactly was going on.
Police believe Rich’s murder, in the Bloomingdale neighborhood of Washington, D.C., was the result of a botched robbery, and Rich’s parents have repeatedly urged anyone with information about their son’s death to contact police instead of speculating about it in the media or online. Still, Burkman and other Rich conspiracy theorists used the anniversary of Rich’s death to attempt to relaunch their baseless claims that Rich’s death was orchestrated by a government or Democratic Party conspiracy.
The claim that Rich was murdered for leaking Democratic emails to WikiLeaks became a popular conspiracy theory on the right around the 2016 election. Speculation about the motivations behind Rich’s murder are now the subject of a number of lawsuits, with Rich’s parents suing Fox News and Rich’s brother suing America First Media Group, a conspiracy theory outlet that Burkman teamed up with for his press conference.
The event was the latest production from Burkman, an attention-hungry Washington character whose previous causes have included banning gay athletes from the NFL. After initially considering having his mystery source appear in-person with a “mask or bag” over his head, Burkman eventually opted for the call, claiming it was too dangerous for his source to appear in public.
Burkman, dressed in a silvery suit and crocodile-skin loafers, quipped before the press conference that he was successfully recovering from an attempt on his own life in March — the apparent result of a feud with an underling over the direction of their freelance Rich investigation.
“I have two bullets in me,” Burkman told The Daily Beast.
After the technical issues were resolved, the much-hyped call with Burkman’s gravelly voiced anonymous tipster didn’t go well.
With the press and YouTube livestreamers crowded around the phone, Luke spun a confusing tale involving two assassins — or maybe three assassins — from the DEA and ATF tracking Rich to murder him and take a thumb drive containing confidential documents. The supposed whistleblower’s story grew as the call went on, with Luke claiming he had passed a lie detector test administered by the Secret Service and that he had also received vague help from the House Intelligence Committee.
Luke wouldn’t explain why anyone should believe him, and he grew flustered when asked to explain his claim that the House Intelligence Committee was involved in his investigation.
“Uh, they helped with… computer things,” Luke said.
Luke and Burkman also had shifting descriptions of the amount of danger the ostensible witness was in. On the one hand, they said he couldn’t reveal his name because he was still in the same region as Rich’s assassins. But at the same time, he felt comfortable enough to use his own voice on the call and reveal details about his supposed conversations with the assassins.
“Did you think about using a voice scrambler?” asked one reporter.
“Uh, does it matter?” Luke replied.
Luke even got some pushback from Burkman’s own stepson and sometimes-bodyguard, David Harden, who sharply questioned Luke about his claims. Harden then delivered confusing remarks about his mother’s safety and living in Burkman’s basement before Burkman cut him off.
After the press conference, Burkman claimed that he was satisfied with how it went. But not everyone in the often-fractious world of Rich conspiracy theorists was so thrilled.
America First Media Group founder Matt Couch quickly took to a Periscope livestream to distance himself from the event. Couch denounced Burkman on a livestream as “bush league” and “unprofessional,” claiming that Luke was disappointed in how the event had played out.
“That press conference out in D.C. was an absolute shitshow,” Couch said.