‘Is This Even About Seth Rich at All?’

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Photo: Matt Miller/The Washington Post/Getty Images

The people who knew and loved Seth Rich still sometimes speak of him in the present tense.

They remember his idealism and enthusiasm, unwavering after ten years in politics, a handful of them spent in D.C., a place often defined by the inverse. Inspired by his high-school debate team, he was first a volunteer for the Democratic Party in Nebraska, his home state, then a staffer there, an intern in his senator’s office, a research data associate at a polling firm, and then, lastly, the voter-expansion data director at the Democratic National Committee.

They remember his warm, broad smile and his tendency to greet everyone in his immediate vicinity with a round of high-fives. They recall the way he walked around the office with his laptop, powered by iced soy lattes and the cookies his mother mailed him, which he always shared. They talk about how much fun he was, how he’d always show up to a party, how he’d always volunteer to be the butt of a joke. There was the time he sported a panda suit at work all day, or the time a colleague came over to his desk to find him sitting there holding a cup of coffee and wearing a unicorn mask like it was just business casual. They speak of someone who was sincere in his silliness, in the way those rare people who understand the inherent silliness of the human condition are. They also speak of a son — one who talked to his parents on the phone nearly every day — a brother, a boyfriend, and a friend. They say he was a thoughtful listener and a kind, solid Midwesterner. He liked beer and Husker football, and he was the godfather to a cockapoo puppy named Archie.

Before he was a murder victim and then a tool for political discord, Seth Rich was a real person with a real life. What’s happened to him in death, then, has also happened to anyone who cared about him. The Rich family declined to be interviewed for this story, for reasons that will become clear. For those same reasons, Rich’s friends and co-workers who shared their thoughts with me — or who expressed them on an online memorial page, or in an obituary — were granted anonymity.

Here’s what we know for certain: Seth Rich, 27, was murdered early in the morning on July 10, 2016. He was on the 2100 block of Flagler Place NW, in the Bloomingdale neighborhood where he lived, talking to his girlfriend on the phone. When she heard something on his end of the line, he told her not to worry, according to what his mother, Mary Rich, told NBC Washington on July 11. Then, at 4:19 a.m., police patrolling the area heard several gunshots. They found Rich, who’d been hit multiple times, twice in the back. He died at the hospital. At the time of the murder, there had been a string of armed robberies in Bloomingdale, and a 12 percent increase in armed robberies in the Metropolitan Police Department’s Fifth District more broadly. Although none of his possessions were stolen, police guessed that Rich had been the victim of a botched robbery attempt, since there were signs of a struggle, including bruising on his hands, knees, and face. No arrests have been made and the investigation is ongoing, meaning Rich’s case is 1 of 65 unsolved murders to take place in D.C. in 2016, according to the MPD’s website.

What happened after Rich was removed from this Earth in a senseless and gruesome fashion was senseless and gruesome, too. He was reborn a symbol of American political corruption, his memory hijacked by activists and conspiracy theorists who perceived in his death an opportunity, first to hurt Hillary Clinton, and then, after the election, to push back against the idea that Russia hacked the DNC to help elect Donald Trump. According to various speculation, Rich was killed by the DNC, or by the Russians, or by Hillary Clinton’s henchmen after leaking DNC documents to WikiLeaks. Or he never even existed and his murder was, in fact, a false flag operation carried out by government crisis actors. His family, friends, and colleagues are left now to sift through this bizarro wreckage — Rich was, as one friend told me, unlucky twice.

“It just sucks seeing someone who could’ve easily been you be turned into a meme,” another explained.

In an election defined by conspiracies (how exactly was the Washington elite running a child sex ring out of the basement of a pizza restaurant that doesn’t have a basement again?) and won by a most gleeful theorist (we never did receive much clarity on the matter of Ted Cruz’s father collaborating with Lee Harvey Oswald on the grassy knoll), it makes a kind of twisted sense that someone like Rich became collateral damage.

The notion that his murder was a political hit job began to circulate even before his funeral. It started on Twitter before pinging to an obscure conspiracy site and then over to Reddit before vaulting to Heat Street and the Twitter feed of Roger Stone, a longtime adviser to President Trump and a frequent guest on Infowars, the radio show hosted by conspiracy theorist Alex Jones. Then WikiLeaks publicly offered a $20,000 reward for information while Julian Assange began insinuating Rich had been the source for the 20,000 hacked DNC emails released just after he died. Mike Cernovich, formerly of the alt-right but now of something he calls the new-right, seized on Assange’s comments and claimed, with certainty, that Rich was the source of the leak. It was after that that Sean Hannity, the Fox News host, first discussed the topic on his radio show.

Meanwhile, Ed Butowsky, a Dallas businessman and personal friend to senior White House official Steven Bannon, got in touch with the Rich family.

Butowsky told me that he had been approached with information about the Rich case by “this lady” (he declined to identify her, or explain what the information was) and he thought it was “odd” to keep the information to himself rather than share it with the Rich family. “If somebody knew something about my son, and he had been killed, I would want to know,” he explained.

He used Facebook to find a connection to the Rich family, he told me, by writing a post that said, “’Does anybody know anyone who is Jewish in Omaha?’ Now, I’m a Jew so I can do this, ok?” Through this method, he was eventually put in touch with the Riches, and he provided them with the information on the phone. They weren’t convinced it was legitimate. But when they complained that the D.C. police had been slow to move on their investigation of the murder, Butowsky suggested they hire a private investigator, which he offered to pay for when they said it wasn’t financially feasible.

“I just impulsively said, cause it’s just the kind of person I am, ‘You know what? I’ll underwrite it for you. I’ll pay for it.’ And I didn’t — you know when you do this, you never think somebody’s gonna say, ‘Yes’? You’re like, ‘Oh, I’ll fly you in,’ and they go, ‘Okay!’ You’re like, ‘Oh, shit.’” He laughed. “Well, same thing happened here. I had no idea they were gonna say yes, but you know what? After they did, I was happy.”

Butowsky claims that, following a recommendation, he floated the idea of hiring Rod Wheeler, a PI and Fox News contributor, to help the Rich family, and that they responded positively because they’d seen him on TV. But Brad Bauman, a spokesman for the family, said Butowsky’s characterization of this exchange was false. Bauman has himself been a subject of scrutiny for those who believe the Democratic Establishment is concealing the truth about Rich’s murder, since he’s a Democratic communications professional. He began helping the Rich family deal with media relations after Seth’s brother emailed a mutual friend to ask for guidance (I reviewed this email, and corroborated Bauman’s account with the friend). Bauman said he’s not being paid by the Rich family, and he’s denied speculation that he’s being paid by the DNC.

Butowsky, for his part, told me it seemed like Bauman’s “job is just to discredit and try to go after people.”

He claims that helping the family by enlisting a PI is where his involvement in the Rich case ended. He added that, to date, he hasn’t even received a bill from Wheeler.

Over the next several months, the theories continued to simmer despite a lack of substantiating evidence, but they hardly got anywhere.

In this era, the Rich murder conspiracy was more like a throwback to the Clinton conspiracies of the ’90s, specifically about their alleged “body count,” a list of people surrounding them who supposedly died suspiciously — most famously Vince Foster (whom no less an unfriendly investigator than Ken Starr found had died by suicide, in accord with all law-enforcement conclusions). There was, in other words, a lot of murmuring on the fringes of political discourse, but nobody took it seriously. It was only when the issue of Russia’s involvement in the election began to close in on Trump that the Rich case reemerged with force as an exculpatory narrative.

To Trump supporters, Rich came to represent their belief that the president was innocent and the Russia narrative was a creation of the media-deep-state industrial complex. Adding fuel to this bewildering fire were claims that Rich had been a secret, devout Bernie Sanders supporter — this theory based on curious edits made to Reddit posts from an account belonging to Rich, after he died, and the existence of another Reddit account called “pandas4bernie” (recall the panda suit) that became inactive around the time he died. The people behind “pandas4bernie,” who are also behind a similar Bernie-themed Twitter account, denied Rich was connected to their Reddit, and a co-worker of Rich’s told me that although he’d never openly expressed a preference for Sanders, he thought it would be unlikely that Rich was a fan, since the Sanders campaign feuded so publicly with the DNC, something that aggravated everyone there. What’s more, at the time Rich died, he was planning to move to Brooklyn to work for the Clinton campaign.

Things reached a tipping point in May, amid a flurry of leaks and new turns in the Russia story and chatter that perhaps the president may be heading toward impeachment. On the 15th, Wheeler told a local Fox News affiliate, Fox 5 DC, it was “confirmed” that his sources in the FBI had proof Rich had been connected to WikiLeaks. It was the first time anything that looked like real reporting had come out to back up the suspicions about Rich’s death, and the right-wing media gleefully pounced. Fox News’s website then reported, on the 16th, that “law enforcement sources” told them Rich had “leaked thousands of internal emails to WikiLeaks.”

Hannity, a longtime Trump loyalist, began promoting the story on Twitter, where he has well over 2 million followers. He even took credit for being right about the Rich murder back in August, long before most people knew about the story. From there, Fox 5 DC’s claim made its way to Drudge, then Breitbart, then Infowars. “Not Russia, but an inside job?” Breitbart asked. Hannity speculated that “complete panic” had set in “at the highest levels of the Democratic Party.” He began sparring with critics, calling them “snowflakes with anger issues” and blaming them for “advancing the unhinged ‘Trump/Russia’ conspiracy.”

Fox 5 DC’s story almost immediately began to look like bullshit. D.C. police denied their claims, and Wheeler admitted he had no evidence. By May 17, the network ran a story acknowledging that Wheeler had “backtracked” on what he initially told them.

Hannity, meanwhile, continued his crusade.

“I don’t think that in American politics, there is anything that is analogous to this. I think that this might be unprecedented,” Bauman told me.

When I emailed Hannity to ask how he could push unsubstantiated claims about a dead young man, given how large his platform is and how much reach his words have, and what that might be doing to the Rich family, he refused to engage on the record. He complained instead about the liberal media’s fixation on the FBI investigation into the Trump campaign’s potential collusion with Russia. On Twitter, he did the same, even admitting at one point that if the Rich conspiracy were true, Trump would be off the hook — there’d be no reason to continue to investigate his ties to Russia.

“Can you think of a more like sociopathic response?” Bauman said of Hannity. “That’s just disgusting.”

Another figure closely tied to the White House who pushed the story about Rich was Newt Gingrich, the former Speaker of the House whose wife was just named ambassador to the Vatican and whom the White House promotes as a spokesperson. During an interview on Fox News, he also claimed Rich was WikiLeaks’s source.

But just as the Rich conspiracy began to infiltrate the national conversation for the first time, at a moment that was politically convenient for a White House drowning in a Russia scandal, Fox News finally retracted its reporting that claimed law-enforcement sources backed up the WikiLeaks theory. On the 23rd, Fox News admitted their story “was not initially subjected to the high degree of editorial scrutiny we require for all our reporting.” They promised to “continue to investigate” the case. With that, any legitimate reporting Hannity and others could point to as proof of a conspiracy vanished. They were back to having nothing but innuendo.

Still, it was only when Rich’s parents wrote their own column for the Post pleading with those “politicizing” their son’s murder to stop because of the “pain and anguish” it brings them that Hannity made a superficial attempt to pull back, amid a tidal wave of backslash — including, as of press time, advertisers pulling out of his show. On the air, he said that “for now” out of respect for the family, he wouldn’t discuss the Rich case. On Twitter, however, he promised more information was coming. He never retracted his prior statements, which a number of diligent reporters — Alex Seitz-Wald, Oliver Darcy, David Weigel, to name a few — had debunked.

Gingrich, meanwhile, quickly hung up the phone after repeatedly saying “no comment” when asked if he’d read Rich’s family’s column. During a second phone call, he elaborated that he wouldn’t be commenting because that’s what the family wants, and then he hung up on me again.

“I think about him every day,” a co-worker told me. “I think about his folks every day. I think about his brother every day. I’m thinking, ‘I should be writing a letter of recommendation for him right now for a PhD program.’ That’s where my mind is. So when my girlfriend and a couple of other friends texted me that Hannity had just done this, the only thing I thought of were his folks. I called his dad.” The co-worker added that when Rich died, “One of the first organizations to send flowers was the RNC. It was just from one staff to another, we’re thinking about you guys in this moment of pain.” What the right has done since, he said, is “frustrating and aggravating and infuriating.”

The family has been, as they wrote in the Post, overwhelmed by interest in the latest turns in the conspiracy. Their heartbreak is made all the more horrific by constant reminders that not only has their son’s killer (or killers) not been brought to justice, the story of his life is being rewritten by activists who know nothing of who he actually was. And many connected to Rich — from Bauman to friends or co-workers who were identified by internet sleuths — have been harassed, have had their information doxxed, have had their homes called in the middle of the night by people who think they are a force of evil.

And for some co-workers, an irony of the entire conspiracy – which hinges on Rich being the one who leaked the DNC documents to Assange’s organization — is that Rich wasn’t much of a tech whiz. “One of the hilarious things about this whole thing that he was somehow the master hacker behind WikiLeaks is that he was fundamentally, like, not that great of a programmer,” a co-worker told me. “He’s like a very smart guy, but he was not — that wasn’t his thing. He wasn’t a computer person first and foremost, he was really interested in politics and solving problems but he came to the computer part as a tool.” Another friend noted on a memorial page that her funny memory of Rich was having to explain to him that his Twitter account, which he used often to complain to companies, was private — which is why those companies never responded to his gripes.

As a friend of his phrased it: “Is this even about Seth at all? You can probably guess my take: He was just a guy in the wrong place, at the wrong time, twice.”

The friend added, “Is it Seth they care about, or the mythology of Seth they’ve invented? There’s this death cult that’s built up, which worships Seth, but is it really even Seth they’re worshiping, or is it just the idea of Seth as a character in the story they want to believe where the DNC and the Clintons and Podesta are villains and WikiLeaks, Reddit, 4chan, and Trump are the heroes?”

Another former colleague expressed similar frustration with the faux concern. “Whether it’s Speaker Gingrich or Hannity, they forfeit their right to participate in civil society when they do things like this.”

“We want to find out who killed Seth,” they added. “This was a real person. This was a real person who was bleeding out in the street right in front of his apartment.”

‘Is This Even About Seth Rich at All?’