WASHINGTON — “Folks, if anyone has questions about the inflatable rat…”
That was the start, courtesy of a party-crashing prankster, to an inauspicious press conference in Northern Virginia in which two conservative activists revealed what they (but few others) deemed to be credible allegations of rape against special counsel Robert Mueller, who is investigating potential collusion between the Trump presidential campaign and Russia.
The allegations failed to convince the three dozen or so members of the press gathered in a drab Holiday Inn conference room to hear out the two activists, Jack Burkman, a veteran Republican operator, and Jacob Wohl, a 20-year-old pro-Trump writer for Gateway Pundit, a right-wing news site that has been accused of spreading misinformation.
The two men allege that “on or about” Aug. 2, 2010, Mueller, then the director of the FBI, encountered a woman named Carolyne Cass at the bar of the St. Regis Hotel in Manhattan. After initially rebuffing his advances, Cass allegedly succumbed and went with Mueller to his 19th-floor room. There, according to an affidavit distributed by Burkman and Wohl, he proceeded to engage in “aggressive rape.” He allegedly threatened Cass into silence about the attack by reminding her that he was “a very powerful law enforcement officer.”
Cass herself was not present at the press conference, and Burkman and Wohl would not reveal details of her whereabouts, citing security concerns. But they said that they approached her claims with “extreme skepticism,” as Burkman put it, only to be convinced that she was telling the truth.
Mueller has strongly denied the accusations. Earlier this week, he contacted the FBI to say that he was aware of women being offered money to concoct stories about him. In response to questions from Yahoo News, a spokesman for Mueller’s investigative team, Peter Carr, referred to a statement he’d issued on Tuesday: “When we learned last week of allegations that women were offered money to make false claims about the Special Counsel, we immediately referred the matter to the FBI for investigation.”
Having endured mockery on social media and late-night comedy shows for the last two days, Mueller’s accusers failed to bolster their case on Thursday, or to dispel the suggestion that they were trying to harm Mueller in order to protect Trump. As they spoke and engaged in a spirited question-and-answer session with reporters, a giant balloon that depicted President Trump as a rodent was visible through a window that looked out at the parking lot below. The activist responsible for the balloon rat, Claude Taylor, joked with the journalists gathered that he wanted only to contribute to the “clown show” to follow.
The 40 or so minutes that followed, however, were closer to a comedy of errors, as Wohl and Burkman struggled to correctly spell their accuser’s first name — there was confusion about whether it was “Carolyn” and “Carolyne” — and to rebut broader assertions that they were perpetuating a hoax, and not an especially convincing one at that.
Evidence of a hoax is strong. For one, Mueller was in Washington, D.C., serving on a jury, the day Wohl and Burkman say he was in New York. And as director of the FBI, it is unlikely that he would have been drinking at a bar without his security detail present.
At times, the press conference tipped over into the absurd, as when Burkman called Wohl, who is 20 years old, “a child prodigy that has eclipsed Mozart.” Burkman also suggested that Wohl had an “honorary degree” from Harvard Law. He does not.
A tweet from an observant journalist revealed that Burkman’s fly was unzipped for the entirety of the affair.
And Jacob Burkman’s fly is down pic.twitter.com/Zzo5dtL2KV
— Evan Siegfried (@evansiegfried) November 1, 2018
Wohl opened the press conference by noting that his “default position” was “not to believe the women,” a reference to allegations made against powerful men throughout the #MeToo movement. He later reiterated the point by impugning the credibility of Christine Blasey Ford, the Northern California professor who made accusations of sexual assault against Brett Kavanaugh during his Supreme Court confirmation hearings.
“We went through every meticulous detail of her allegation,” Wohl says of the absent Mueller accuser, declining to say how he did so. “The accusation was credible.”
A onetime hedge fund manager, Wohl more recently cast himself as that rare Trump evangelist in Los Angeles. For the purposes of discrediting Mueller, he has also taken on the guise of a private investigator by creating a fake company, Surefire Intelligence (the documents handed out by Wohl and Burkman were apparently compiled by Surefire). LinkedIn accounts for supposed employees of Surefire Intelligence used photographs of Bar Refaeli, the Israeli supermodel, and actor Christoph Waltz. A journalist who called a phone number associated with Surefire was directed to a voicemail for Wohl’s mother.
“This has nothing to do with politics,” Wohl said.
His Twitter feed, however, tells a different story. One tweet, for example, declares that Mueller should be placed at the detention facility in Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, where the United States holds suspected terrorists. The tweet was sent in June, long before Sept. 15, when he says Cass contacted him. Wohl has said that President Barack Obama, Hillary Clinton, the documentarian Michael Moore and former FBI director James Comey should all also be sent to Guantanamo Bay.
Burkman has slightly more experience in the investigatory realm. He was, at one point, hired by the family of Seth Rich, the Democratic National Committee staffer killed in a late-night botched robbery in Washington, D.C., in the summer of 2016. But the family stopped working with Burkman after he appeared to indulge in conspiracy theories about the murder.
Last summer, he said he had a source with credible information that Seth had been killed by a rogue group of federal agents. Then, as on Thursday, he convened a press conference at the Holiday Inn in Northern Virginia. But his blockbuster source, “Luke,” failed to show. Burkman allowed journalists to interview him by speaker phone. Most appeared to come away feeling that they had been privy to little more than a publicity stunt.
Despite that, plenty saw fit to return on Thursday for another helping of Burkman. They did not come away disappointed. And at least one wondered about the potential consequences of what appears to be a ham-fisted Mueller smear.
“Are you both prepared,” someone shouted near the end of the press conference, “for federal prison?”
Burkman said that they were not.
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