Two weeks before Democrats were poised to converge on Philadelphia for their convention in July of last year, the Democratic National Committee's director of voter expansion data, a 27-year-old staffer named Seth Rich, was shot in Washington D.C.'s Columbia Heights neighborhood. Over a year later, Metropolitan Police still have no witnesses, no suspects and no motive for his murder. Their working theory is that Rich was killed in a botched armed robbery, but his watch and wallet were still with the body when police discovered it. His death devastated both his colleagues and his family, who raised money to finance their own investigation when the police's stalled. It remains one of 65 unsolved murders in D.C. last year.
In the year since, Seth Rich's death has become a conspiracy célèbre for supporters of Donald Trump, who have co-opted it to cast suspicion on Hillary Clinton and away from Trump. A lawsuit filed Tuesday alleges that Fox News attempted to use Rich's death that way in a now-retracted story the network aired in May, a story the complainant says was read and approved by the president before it aired. (Fox called the allegations in the lawsuit "completely erroneous.")
How did it become a conspiracy theory?
Shortly after Rich's death, it became an object of fixation in the Internet's right-wing fever swamps where frenzied speculation circulated, mutated and, eventually, coalesced around an overarching conspiracy theory: Rich was killed for leaking thousands of Hillary Clinton's emails to Wikileaks. The baseless theory was promoted on conspiracy sites like InfoWars and Breitbart, but probably more significantly, was fueled by suggestive comments from Wikileaks founder Julian Assange, who remarked "our sources take risks" after referencing Rich's death during a TV interview in August 2016. Wikileaks later pledged $20,000 for information about Rich’s murder. In January, U.S. intelligence agencies concluded that Russian military intelligence was responsible for hacking the emails, and feeding them to Wikileaks.
How did the conspiracy theory go mainstream?
In May, Fox News aired, then retracted, a story citing multiple sources, including "a federal investigator who reviewed an FBI forensic report," that ostensibly confirmed the theory that Rich leaked Clinton's emails to Wikileaks before his death. Rod Wheeler – a former DC homicide detective and Fox News contributor who claimed he'd been retained by Rich's family to assist with their investigation – was also quoted in the now-debunked story, confirming Rich emailed Wikileaks, and accusing "someone within the D.C. government, Democratic National Committee or Clinton team [of] blocking the murder investigation from going forward." It wasn't the network's first time addressing the baseless story – Fox fixtures Newt Gingrich and Eric Bolling both discussed it on air, and multiple Fox affiliates ran stories about the theory – but it was it's most complete treatment of the conspiracy.
When did it collapse?
Fox News removed the story from its website one week after it was published, and after the Rich family wrote an emotional appeal in the Washington Post asking the public and Fox to "Stop politicizing our son's murder." In a statement addressing its retraction, Fox News said the story "was not initially subjected to the high degree of editorial scrutiny we require for all our reporting. Upon appropriate review, the article was found not to meet those standards and has since been removed." The TV channel's biggest star, Sean Hannity – who'd devoted considerable attention to the conspiracy theory – meanwhile, declared his intention to keep "trying to find the truth" on Twitter.
Why are we talking about it now?
On Tuesday, Rod Wheeler, the Fox News contributor quoted in the discredited story, filed a lawsuit against the network, its parent company and a prominent Republican donor, Ed Butowsky, who offered to pay him to investigate Rich's murder. Wheeler's suit alleges that the reporter, Malia Zimmerman, fabricated the quotes attributed to him in the story, and that President Trump himself read and approved a draft of the story prior to publication.
The point of publishing the now-discredited story, Wheeler's lawyers write in the complaint, was to "establish that Seth Rich provided WikiLeaks with the DNC emails to shift the blame from Russia and help put to bed speculation that President Trump colluded with Russia in an attempt to influence the outcome of the Presidential election." Their complaint includes screenshots of text messages from Butowsky, who arranged a meeting between himself, Wheeler and former press secretary Sean Spicer. "Not to add any more pressure but the president just read the article. He wanted the article out immediately. It's all up to you. But don't feel the pressure," Butowsky wrote. Butowsky told NPR, which broke news of the suit, that his text was meant jokingly. Spicer confirmed to NPR that he met with Butowsky and Wheeler in his office, but said he did not share the story with the president himself. If Butowsky gave it to him directly, he was unaware of it, Spicer said.
During a press briefing on Tuesday, acting press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders denied that the president had any involvement in the fake story. "The President had no knowledge of the story, and it's completely untrue that he or the White House had involvement in the story," Sanders said. "Beyond that, this is ongoing litigation, and I'd refer you to the actual parties involved, which aren't the White House."