One of the most absurd and wicked conspiracies to surface during the 2016 presidential election involved Democratic National Committee staffer Seth Rich, who conspiracy theorists claim was the victim of a hit job orchestrated by then-candidate Hillary Clinton.
Rich was murdered for supplying DNC emails to WikiLeaks, the conspiracy theory goes.
But it turns out the story, which eventually made its way to mainstream media through the likes of Fox News’ Sean Hannity, was yet another piece of disinformation sowed in the public mind by Russia, according to an exhaustive investigation by Yahoo News.
The U.S. federal prosecutor who was in charge of the Rich case said Russia’s foreign intelligence service, SVR, circulated a document disguised as a real intelligence report on July 3, 2016 — just three days after the junior staffer was murdered in what authorities believe was a botched robbery attempt.
The phony report indicated the following: “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.”
On the very same day the fake report appeared, the website whatdoesitmean.com — which Yahoo noted is a “a frequent vehicle for Russian propaganda” — put out an article connecting Rich’s death to a political conspiracy, attributing its information to “Russian intelligence.”
From there, the story was spread over two and a half years by Russian government-owned RT and Sputnik and conservative media — both alternative and mainstream outlets — in the United States.
Fake social media accounts run by the Russia’s Internet Research Agency (IRA) helped to push the conspiracy, tweeting more than 2,000 times during the election about Rich’s alleged death at the hands of the Clintons.
Deborah Sines, the former assistant U.S. attorney who was in charge of the Rich case, used her security clearance to begin investigating where these seemingly false claims originated, upset that her investigation into Rich’s murder meant chasing down so many ridiculous leads.
Sines wrote a memo regarding “copies of two SVR intelligence reports about Seth Rich that had been intercepted by U.S. intelligence officials” she had discovered.
She eventually took her concerns to the Department of Justice and eventually briefed special counsel Robert Mueller, who was investigating Russian election interference and potential Trump campaign connections to Russian operatives.
Sines told Yahoo News: “It appeared to me that it was a very clear campaign to deflect an ongoing federal criminal investigation. So then you have to look at why is Russia doing this? … It’s not rocket science before you add it up and you go, ‘Oh, if Seth is the leaker to WikiLeaks — it doesn’t have anything to do with the Russians. So of course Russia’s interest in doing this is incredibly transparent.”
By May 2017, primetime host Sean Hannity was running with an exclusive Fox News story claiming to have proof that Rich’s murder was a political hit, saying the story “might expose the single biggest fraud, lies, perpetrated on the American people by the media and the Democrats in our history.”
Fox was later forced to retract the story after one of the sources pulled back on statements he had given to reporters, saying at the time the piece “was not initially subjected to the high degree of editorial scrutiny we require for all our reporting.”
Regardless, the false information was out on the internet, bolstering believers’ concern that Clinton had added yet another person to her body count.
Police in Washington, D.C., are convinced that Rich’s murder was a robbery attempt gone bad, particularly as local residents had been complaining about an increase in such crimes days before the staffer’s death.
But that does not appear to satisfy those who have fallen prey to Russia’s fake conspiracy, launched three years ago and believed to this day.