WASHINGTON — Special Counsel Robert Mueller’s redacted final report drove a dagger through the heart of one of the most notorious conspiracy theories of the Trump era: that a murdered DNC staffer named Seth Rich — not Russia — stole tens of thousands of Democratic Party emails and gave them to WikiLeaks during the 2016 presidential race.
But don’t hold your breath for an apology, correction or retraction from high-profile promoters of the now-disproven theories like Sean Hannity or WikiLeaks. In the aftermath of Mueller’s report, they’ve gone silent on the subject of Seth Rich.
The baseless theories about Rich first appeared online within 24 hours of his killing on July 10th, 2016. But it wasn’t until a month later that those theories spread like wildfire after WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange suggested on Dutch TV that Rich was the source for a trove of leaked Democratic Party emails WikiLeaks had begun publishing on its website. The emails proved embarrassing enough to prompt the resignations of multiple top DNC officials including chairwoman Rep. Debbie Wasserman Schultz (D-FL).
The theories about Rich’s life and murder — which remains unsolved — continued through Election Day and well into Trump’s presidency, fueled by more comments from Assange and breathless hyping by Fox News and its star anchor, Sean Hannity. In May 2017, the network’s website published a story reporting that Rich had “contact with WikiLeaks,” only to retract the story entirely a week later.
But in the time between publication and retraction, Hannity promoted the story almost nightly on his show. He ran footage of Assange’s interview hinting at Rich’s involvement. He questioned the official police account of what had happened to Rich (a robbery gone wrong). He argued the Rich theory could disprove any coordination between Russia and the Trump campaign. “Now, if Rich in fact was WikiLeaks’ source for the DNC email leaks, it would confirm Russia was not involved,” Hannity said on his May 18th, 2017, show. “Remember, WikiLeaks have not been wrong in 11 years. They’ve not been proven to get one fact wrong that they have published.” (After the retraction, Fox News’s president in charge of news said that the reporting process that went into the story was “being investigated internally,” but Fox has yet to say what came of that investigation.)
According to Mueller’s report, by far the most exhaustive investigation into the DNC hack, Rich had nothing to do with the hack-and-dump operation that illegally accessed the DNC’s networks and the personal email accounts of Clinton campaign employees, including chairman John Podesta. The report documents in meticulous detail how Russian intelligence service units 26165 and 74455 employed sophisticated malware technology and rented computers located all over the world (including in the U.S.) to extract huge amounts of stolen data, including opposition research, strategy memos and fundraising documents. They also used so-called spear-phishing techniques to steal tens of thousands of private emails from staffers for the Democratic Party and the Clinton campaign. The Russians initially created two phony online identities, DCLeaks and Guccifer 2.0, to disseminate their hacked materials before eventually — at WikiLeaks’ urging — giving them to Assange’s outfit.
Mueller’s office devotes an entire sub-section of its final report to what it calls Assange and WikiLeaks’ “dissembling” about the source of the stolen Democratic Party materials. Mueller notes that Assange and WikiLeaks made various statements about Rich after receiving the stolen documents, including offering a $20,000 reward for information leading to the conviction of his killer or killers and alluding to him in subsequent television interviews.”Beginning in the summer of 2016, Assange and WikiLeaks made a number of statements about Seth Rich, a former DNC staff member who was killed in July 2016,” Mueller wrote. “The statements about Rich implied falsely that he had been the source of the stolen DNC emails.”
“We appreciate that the facts included in the Mueller report confirm what we have said all along: Seth had nothing to do with taking DNC emails or WikiLeaks,” Joel and Mary Rich, Seth’s parents, said in a statement sent to Rolling Stone by their lawyer. “Hopefully this will put to bed the harmful conspiracy theories about our sons.”
“The special counsel has now provided hard facts that demonstrate this conspiracy is false,” Aaron Rich, Seth’s older brother, said in a statement after the release of the redacted Mueller report. “I hope that the people who pushed, fueled, spread, ran headlines, articles, interviews, talk and opinion shows or in any way used my family’s tragedy to advance their political agendas — despite our pleas that what they were saying was not based on any facts — will take responsibility for the unimaginable pain they have caused us.”
That hasn’t happened. Rolling Stone sent detailed questions to representatives for some of the most influential promoters of the Rich conspiracy theories — Fox News, Sean Hannity, WikiLeaks and Julian Assange. We asked whether they planned to correct, retract or apologize for past comments about Rich, the DNC hack and WikiLeaks after Mueller’s debunking. None of them responded to multiple requests for comment. (The request for Assange, who was arrested in London almost two weeks ago and faces one count of conspiracy in the U.S., was sent to his American lawyer.)
At this point, the only remedy that appears to be working for the Rich family is going to court. In March 2018, Aaron Rich sued a one-time Fox guest, a pro-Trump blogger and the right-leaning Washington Times newspaper for defamation after they accused him of helping his brother steal documents from the DNC and providing them to WikiLeaks in exchange for money that went to Aaron Rich’s bank account. Aaron Rich’s legal strategy has so far led to retractions and apologies from the Washington Times (which was then dropped from his suit) as well as pro-Trump conspiracy theorist Jerome Corsi and the website InfoWars. (Corsi had published a column at InfoWars that parroted the baseless claims about Seth and Aaron Rich.) Joel and Mary Rich, Seth’s parents, have also sued Fox News, a Fox guest and the author of the retracted story about Rich and WikiLeaks, alleging intentional infliction of emotional distress. A federal judge in New York dismissed the suit last fall; it is currently on appeal.
This March, a federal judge in Washington, D.C., gave the go-ahead for Aaron Rich’s suit to head to trial. “Aaron is gratified that the special counsel’s report lays to rest the lingering conspiracy theories regarding his brother’s murder,” his lawyer Mike Gottlieb said in a statement. “Aaron looks forward to pursuing accountability against those who have repeatedly lied about him and his brother to score political points.”