Did Russia Launch the Seth Rich Conspiracy Theory?

On July 10, 2016, young DNC staffer Seth Rich was beaten up and shot while walking home in Washington, D.C. His death immediately became fodder for conspiracy theorists, who had been running a tally of the so-called “Clinton Body Count” since 2008.

On Tuesday, Michael Isikoff published the results of his investigation into the origins of that particular conspiracy theory. His primary source, Deborah Sines, the former assistant U.S. attorney in charge of the Rich case, pointed to a “bulletin” dated July 13, 2016, which was planted by Russia’s foreign intelligence service (SVR).

The purported details in the SVR account seemed improbable on their face: that Rich, a data director in the DNC’s voter protection division, was on his way to alert the FBI to corrupt dealings by Clinton when he was slain in the early hours of a Sunday morning by the former secretary of state’s hit squad.

The conspiracy theories took a different turn on August 9th when Julian Assange implied that Seth Rich was the source for the DNC emails released by Wikileaks on July 22nd. Over the next two years, the lies were not only peddled by Russian-controlled media outlets like RT and Sputnik, they became fodder for the entire right-wing media apparatus, including Alex Jones and Fox News.

Isikoff also points out that people more directly in Trump’s orbit were peddling this particular conspiracy theory.

The same day Assange falsely hinted that Rich may have been his source for DNC emails, [Roger] Stone tweeted a picture of Rich, calling the late DNC staffer in a tweet “another dead body in the Clinton’s wake.” He then added: “Coincidence? I think not.”

Seven months later, the calls were also coming from inside the White House.

“Huge story … he was a Bernie guy … it was a contract kill, obviously,” then-White House chief strategist Steve Bannon texted to a CBS “60 Minutes” producer about Rich on March 17, 2017, according to some of Bannon’s text messages that were reviewed by Yahoo News.

It was two months later that a story by Malia Zimmerman ran on Fox News (which was later retracted) and Sean Hannity went all-in on the conspiracy theory. Was Bannon their source as well? Who knows?

Philip Bump warns against assumptions that Russia was the initial source for this story. His main argument is that everyone involved had something to gain by spreading it.

It’s eternally tempting to suggest that out-there ideas like the Rich conspiracies were a function of nefarious external actors like Russian intelligence officials. That text from Bannon, though, underlines the more anodyne truth: It was politically useful for a number of people to hype the allegations at the expense of Rich’s reputation.

It was useful for Bannon in aiding Trump. It was useful for Hannity to aid Trump and entice viewers. It was useful for Jones because it fed into his long-standing conspiracy narrative. It was useful for Assange to deflect blame.

He’s right that Hannity and Jones never met an anti-liberal conspiracy theory that they didn’t like. But obviously they weren’t the ones who seeded this one. Bannon chimed in almost a year later in an attempt to take the heat off of Trump for Russiagate. Finally, Assange knew that Russia was Wikileaks’ source for the hacked emails, so who is to say he wasn’t once again doing their bidding to deflect blame? Bump is right to suggest that each of these people used the Seth Rich conspiracy theory for their own purposes, but by the time they did so, it was circulating like wildfire through the swamps of Trumpland.

In the end, Russia might or might not be the initiator of this conspiracy theory. But even if they weren’t, they obviously did everything they could to promote it. The lesson we can take from all of this is that it is very likely that Vladimir Putin and his cohort are behind a lot of the garbage that floats around in the sewers of social media, working its way up through right-wing news outlets, and eventually being parroted by the White House.

Though it always pays to be discerning, we can expect a lot more of this kind of thing over the next year and a half as we head into the 2020 election. It is going to get ugly out there. People who are willing to exploit the death of an idealistic young man for their own purposes place no limits on the depths they are willing to go in order to spread fear and paranoia.

It is at times like these that I think about a line from the character Lily, played by Lily Tomlin, in Jane Wagner’s play The Search For Signs of Intelligent Life in the Universe: “No matter how cynical you become, it’s never enough to keep up.”

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Nancy LeTourneau

Nancy LeTourneau is a contributing writer for the Washington Monthly. Follow her on Twitter @Smartypants60.