Say that you want to discredit the idea that Vladimir Putin’s Russian spies hacked the Democratic National Committee last year and weaponized the data via WikiLeaks. (Leave out, for a moment, whether or not Donald Trump’s campaign colluded with the Russians, though that’s precisely what special counsel Robert Mueller and the FBI are trying to find out.) You’d need a counter-theory, right?
For the past year or so, one of the most prominent counter-theories—involving a veritable field-full of rabbit holes, naturally—involves Seth Rich, a mid-level staffer at the DNC who was murdered on July 10, 2016. (The Washington, DC, police say that their investigation of the murder is still open, but their working assumption is that it was an attempted robbery.) It didn’t take long before conspiracy theorists, with zero evidence, pounced on the story. Rich, they declared, was killed (“assassinated,” as Newt Gingrich said) because he had stolen vast swaths of data from the DNC and handed it to WikiLeaks—so, voilà, both Moscow and the Trump campaign are innocent. The Democrats did it! The story bounced from Twitter to various conspiratorial rumor-mongers and onto websites such as Reddit and 4chan, thence to Breitbart News and eventually to Fox, where—as we shall see—it met its Waterloo.
Not to belabor the more-than-obvious, but if the police and the FBI had any inkling whatsoever that the WikiLeaks ammunition had come from Rich rather than Russia—say, by examining his computer—an army of federal investigators would have torn apart Rich’s apartment, interviewed his friends and colleagues, and a lot more. None of that happened.
The disproven and discredited story—which was grudgingly retracted by Fox in May, and extensively debunked by Olivia Nuzzi in New York magazine and by John Whitehouse at Media Matters—is now the subject of a new lawsuit, filed on August 1 in New York by one of the people originally mixed up in the attempt to spread fake news about Rich—and it sheds new light on how the story may have evolved. Rod Wheeler, a former DC detective and Fox contributor, is suing Fox News and two other defendants over what he says were deliberate efforts to falsify the story. According to Wheeler—in a 33-page complaint that was reviewed by The Nation—President Trump himself, along with then–press secretary Sean Spicer, participated directly in helping Fox spread lies about Rich. As the story unfolds, we’ll encounter Newt Gingrich, Sean Hannity, WikiLeaks’s Julian Assange, Steve Bannon, Roger Stone, and a wild cast of characters—one that, unfortunately, seems to include legendary investigative reporter Seymour Hersh.