This Is Robert Mueller’s Chance to Dismantle the Seth Rich Conspiracy Theory
WASHINGTON — With just a sentence or two, Robert Mueller could demolish one of the most viral and cruel conspiracy theories of the Trump era.
On Wednesday, the former special counsel will testify before the House Intelligence and Judiciary Committees about his final report on Russian interference in the 2016 election and any conspiracy between Russia and members of the Trump campaign. The Justice Department has urged Mueller to “remain within the boundaries” of his report, and Mueller, a former FBI director and career G-man, will surely avoid any questions that stray beyond what he and his team of lawyers spelled out in their nearly 450-page final product.
There is, however, one brief passage that might benefit from some elaboration.
Mueller devotes three paragraphs of his report to a particularly fraught moment in the middle of 2016 involving Seth Rich, a 27-year-old DNC staffer who was murdered in July of that year, and the website WikiLeaks. That summer, news outlets had reported that Russian agents hacked into Democratic National Committee and the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee and stole a massive trove of emails and other documents. Not long after, WikiLeaks published thousands of those emails, plunging the Democratic Party into chaos and leading to the resignation of DNC Chairwoman Rep. Debbie Wasserman Schultz (D-FL).
As the reports emerged about Russia’s role in the DNC leak, WikiLeaks and its cofounder, Julian Assange, made several public statements that seemed designed to imply that Rich, not Russia, was behind the leak. WikiLeaks offered a $20,000 reward for information about Rich’s killer. In an interview with Dutch TV about the leaked emails, Assange brought up Rich’s murder out of the blue. In another interview, when asked why he was so interested Rich’s killer, Assange replied, “We’re very interested in anything that might be a threat to alleged Wikileaks sources.”
Assange’s comments about the Rich case acted like an accelerant, transforming a minor brush fire into a raging inferno. Baseless claims about Rich’s death had already appeared online in a smattering of tweets and Reddit threads that suggested the Clintons somehow orchestrated Rich’s murder. But those rumors didn’t ignite into a full-blown, international conspiracy theory until Assange insinuated Rich might have been his source.
There was no evidence for any of this: The D.C. police say Rich was the victim of an armed robbery gone wrong and that his death had nothing to do with his DNC job. Rich’s parents said that law enforcement officials searched Seth’s email and laptop and found no communications between him and WikiLeaks or anything to suggest he had leaked emails to Assange’s group. But that didn’t stop everyone from anonymous Redditors to former Trump adviser Steve Bannon to Fox News host Sean Hannity from pushing unfounded theories about Rich. (WikiLeaks, Fox News, Sean Hannity, and a lawyer for Assange all did not respond to requests for comment from Rolling Stone after Mueller’s final report was released in April.)
These conspiracy theories prevented Rich’s family from grieving Seth and made their lives a nightmare from which they couldn’t wake up. “The amount of pain and anguish this has caused us is unbearable,” Joel and Mary Rich, Seth’s parents, wrote in the Washington Post in 2017. “With every conspiratorial flare-up, we are forced to relive Seth’s murder and a small piece of us dies as more of Seth’s memory is torn away from us.” (Through their lawyer, Joel and Mary Rich declined to comment for this story.)
The Rich family felt a measure of relief and vindication in July 2018 when then-Special Counsel Mueller indicted 12 Russian nationals for hacking into the DNC, DCCC, and the personal email account of John Podesta, the chairman of Hillary Clinton’s presidential campaign. It was the most definitive statement yet that Rich had nothing to do with the DNC leak.
This April, Mueller’s final redacted report concluded WikiLeaks had obtained the leaked emails from cutouts used by Russian intelligence. Assange and WikiLeaks’ public statements about Rich, the report goes on to say, were “apparently designed to obscure the source of the materials that WikiLeaks was releasing.”
Mueller’s brief section about Rich and WikiLeaks specifically accused Assange of “dissembling” about the source of the stolen DNC emails. It also says that Assange “implied falsely” that Rich was his source. On Wednesday, Mueller has the opportunity to translate this dry legalese into a clear, full-throated rebuke of the Rich conspiracy theorists.
Matthew Miller, a former head of the Office of Public Affairs at the Department of Justice, says that Mueller, if asked, should be able to refute the Rich conspiracy theories involving WikiLeaks without revealing classified information or investigative methods. “If someone asked him if he found any evidence that Rich was involved in the hack or leak, he would say, ‘No, our evidence found that it was the Russians and Assange,'” Miller writes in an email. “I can’t think of any classification restriction that would prevent him from doing so.”
“It’s an opportunity for Mueller to set the record straight,” Melissa Ryan, an online disinformation expert, tells Rolling Stone.
Ryan says she worries any statement by Mueller about Rich could set off the conspiracy theorists again. After all, individual people can recant and apologize, but conspiracy theories themselves never go away, finding a forever home in the dark corners of the internet. But a definitive statement by Mueller, with the world watching him, could give further comfort to a family that has endured the unimaginable.