Former House Speaker Newt Gingrich and the Russian diplomatic service are the latest recruits to a burgeoning right-wing conspiracy theory about the death of a young staffer at the Democratic National Committee last summer.
Newt Gingrich, speaking Sunday on Fox News, pushed the idea that DNC staffer Seth Rich, who was shot and killed last summer in Washington, D.C., was murdered as part of a WikiLeaks-related conspiracy.
“We have this very strange story now of this young man who worked for the Democratic National Committee,” said Gingrich, the former presidential candidate and Trump backer whose wife has been nominated as U.S. ambassador to the Vatican, “who apparently was assassinated at 4 in the morning, having given WikiLeaks something like 53,000 emails and 17,000 attachments.”
“Nobody’s investigating that, and what does that tell you about what’s going on?” added Gingrich. “Because it turns out, it wasn’t the Russians. It was this young guy who, I suspect, was disgusted by the corruption of the Democratic National Committee. He’s been killed, and apparently nothing serious has been done to investigative his murder. So I’d like to see how [special counsel Robert] Mueller is going to define what his assignment is.”
Gingrich was echoing charges that began ricocheting around right-wing media last week, crowding out coverage of the burgeoning Trump-Russia scandals. And like the commentators on Breitbart, Fox and other channels, he was both demanding an investigation and presuming its conclusions, based on evidence that is either unsupported or already debunked.
The District of Columbia police say Rich, who was shot in the back at 4 a.m. near his home in northwest Washington, was the victim of a botched robbery. This was about two weeks before Wikileaks began publishing thousands of emails stolen from the Democratic National Committee, some of which proved embarrassing to the Clinton campaign. American intelligence agencies say they are certain the hack was perpetrated by Russia cyberwar agents.
But in August, Wikileaks founder Julian Assange, in an interview with Dutch television, alluded to Rich’s death to illustrate the dangers his sources face — suggesting, without quite saying outright, that the young staffer might have been involved in the leak.
The story reemerged last week following an interview aired on a Fox News affiliate in Washington with a private investigator hired by the Rich family (and paid for by a third party, Ed Butowsky, a Dallas financier and Fox News guest). The investigator, Rod Wheeler, said a law enforcement agency, believed to be the FBI, had found evidence on Rich’s laptop that he had been in contact with WikiLeaks before his death.
But Wheeler quickly walked back the claims, saying in an interview with CNN that he had only heard that information from a reporter at Fox News. According to NBC News, multiple sources confirmed that the laptop never contained any emails related to WikiLeaks and that it was never in the FBI’s possession. Rich’s parents asked him to stop spreading these accounts via a cease-and-desist letter.
“It’s sad but unsurprising that a group of media outlets who have repeatedly lied to the American people would try and manipulate the legacy of a murder victim in order to forward their own political agenda,” family representative Brad Bauman told Business Insider. “I think there is a special place in hell for people like that.”
Sunday night Fox News host Sean Hannity urged that Congress open an investigation into Rich’s murder, continuing his coverage of the story. Hannity and other right-wing outlets are raising the possibility that Rich was the victim of a plot related to the emails. That, in turn, would cast doubt on the intelligence findings blaming Moscow for the hacking, thereby tending to clear the Trump campaign of collusion with Russia.
— Sean Hannity (@seanhannity) May 22, 2017
The pro-Trump Reddit group The_Donald has also made Rich a prime topic of conversation, with one user planning a march in July. BuzzFeed News reported last week on how the Trump group was responsible for pushing the Rich narrative in response to the slew of negative news hitting the White House, specifically the Washington Post report that Trump had given classified intelligence to Russian officials visiting the White House. Via BuzzFeed’s Charlie Warzel:
This is perhaps the thing that the pro-Trump media is best at. Here, Infowars’ Paul Joseph Watson closes the conspiratorial loop and suggests that the initial Washington Post story was part of a nefarious plot to crowd out the news cycle and distract from the real news of the day — no matter that the Fox 5 report on Seth Rich came hours after the Washington Post scoop.
Posters on The_Donald also reached out to Judicial Watch, a conservative organization that describes itself as promoting “transparency, accountability and integrity in government, politics and the law.” A spokesperson for Judicial Watch told Yahoo News that they had filed a Freedom of Information Act with the FBI last year shortly after Rich’s murder and received no information. They filed a FOIA regarding the case with the Washington, D.C., mayor and police department last week.
Joining the voices calling for a further Rich investigation was @RussianEmbassy, the verified account for Russia’s London embassy, which sent out a graphic asking “Who killed Seth Rich?” The post included criticism of mainstream media for paying attention to hacking charges over the Rich murder.
— Russian Embassy, UK (@RussianEmbassy) May 19, 2017