Reprinted with permission from MediaMatters.
A Republican operative’s email, revealed in a new lawsuit, turns the subtext behind the last year of Seth Rich conspiracy theories into text: Conservatives have been cynically deploying the murder of the Democratic National Committee staffer in an effort to protect President Donald Trump from the damning Russia story.
Conspiracy theorists have claimed since shortly after Rich’s July 2016 murder that he had leaked DNC emails to WikiLeaks and had been killed in retaliation; according to U.S. intelligence agencies, hackers linked to Russian intelligence stole the emails as part of an effort by the Kremlin to help Trump win the election. Originally floated on Internet message boards, the story was amplified by key Trump media allies like Fox News’ Sean Hannity, longtime Trump adviser Roger Stone, and the conspiracy site Infowars.
From the beginning, Trump’s allies used these conspiracy theories to try to kick up dust around the Russia story. As more stolen Democratic emails entered the public sphere, they cited Rich’s murder and his purported ties to WikiLeaks as pushback against the crystallizing evidence that Russian intelligence services were playing a key role in the election. But at the same time, the conspiracy theorists often presented themselves as the ones who really had the best interest of the Rich family at heart; the only ones interested in finding the real killer.
Fox gave the story new life in mid-May when it produced reporting prompted by the efforts of Ed Butowsky — a Trump supporter and unpaid Fox commentator. Butowsky had hired Rod Wheeler, a private investigator and Fox contributor, to investigate Rich’s murder; Wheeler was cited in the network’s May 15 FoxNews.com report that Rich had been in contact with WikiLeaks.
The president’s media sycophants immediately sought to use the Rich story to defuse the Russia allegations. But Fox had to retract the story after it fell apart, and a humiliated Wheeler is now suing Butowsky and the network for damaging his reputation.
Wheeler’s lawsuit reveals that Butowsky’s concern with the Rich investigation had little to do with getting elusive justice for the murdered DNC staffer. It was a political operation aimed at protecting the president from the Russia scandal — one that Fox was eager to support.
Butowsky made that clear in an email he sent to a list of Fox staff hours before the FoxNews.com’s story’s publication. “One of the big conclusions we need to draw from this is that the Russians did not hack our computer systems and ste[a]l emails,” he wrote, “and there was no collusion like trump with the Russians.” The pro-Trump press had been searching for a way to defuse the collusion bomb, and Butowsky hoped he had found it.
In the days that followed, pro-Trump Fox hosts Steve Doocy, who had received Butowsky’s email, and Sean Hannity, the most prominent champion of Rich conspiracy theories, promoted the story using Butowsky’s language (emphasis added):
- May 16: Doocy reports, “For a long time on the internet and elsewhere, he has been rumored to have been the one who gave WikiLeaks the DNC emails. So, if that is true, and we don’t know yet, it looks like Russia didn’t give it to WikiLeaks. It was Seth Rich, perhaps.”
- May 16: Hannity claims that “explosive developments” in the Rich story “could completely shatter the narrative that in fact WikiLeaks was working with the Russians, or there was collusion between the Trump campaign and the Russians.”
- May 18: Hannity claims: “If Rich, in fact, was WikiLeaks’ source for DNC email leaks, it would confirm Russia was not involved. … Wouldn’t that blow the Russian collusion narrative that the media has been pushing out of the water?”
- May 19: Hannity claims: “What if it was somebody that was so disgruntled in the DNC at how they cheated Bernie and how the fix was in, if that turned out to be true that somebody did that, wouldn’t that completely wipe out the entire Russia lie we’ve heard for months and months?”
The lawsuit also adds new details that suggest that the story, published amid a slew of negative stories about the president and Russia, was deliberately timed to blunt the Russia debacle:
- On May 8, former Director of National Intelligence James Clapper and former acting Attorney General Sally Yates testified to Congress about Russian interference. Yates testified that she had warned the White House in January that former Trump national security adviser Michael Flynn could be “essentially blackmailed by the Russians.”
- On May 9, Trump fired FBI Director James Comey, who had been leading the federal criminal investigation into whether Trump’s advisers had colluded with Russia.
- On May 10, according to Wheeler’s suit, Butowsky and the Fox reporter he had been working with told him they had “supposedly secured a source at the FBI who confirmed that emails were sent between Seth Rich and WikiLeaks.”
- On May 11, Wheeler says he saw a draft of the story. The same day, Trump told NBC News that he had fired Comey because he was unsatisfied with Comey’s handling of the Russia investigation, and The New York Times reported that Trump had asked Comey to pledge loyalty to him over a private dinner at the White House.
- On May 15, Washington reeled from a report that Trump had revealed classified information to Russian diplomats in an Oval Office briefing.
- Later that day, Fox published the Rich story.
Conservatives wanted to help a president badly damaged by mounting evidence that he owed his election to a foreign adversary. Rich was just a pawn in their game — he was an instrument they could use to further their argument. There are no limits to the depths the president’s media allies are willing to sink in their quest to defend the indefensible.
Header image by Sarah Wasko / Media Matters