Russian intelligence agents spread a false report claiming assassins working for Hillary Clinton killed Democratic National Committee staffer Seth Rich just days after his murder, according to a new investigation.
The SVR, Russia’s foreign intelligence service, spread a fake intelligence report about Rich on July 13, 2016, three days after he was killed walking home, a federal prosecutor told Yahoo News.
The Russians claimed Rich, a 27-year-old working as a data director for the DNC, was going to alert the FBI to corrupt dealings by Clinton when he was murdered by assassins. Those details then appeared on whatdoesitmean.com, an obscure website that promotes Russian propaganda.
In the next two years, media organizations owned by the Russian government emphasized stories falsely alleging Rich leaked Democratic Party emails to WikiLeaks.
WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange also made false statements about Rich’s death to obscure that the hacked emails came from Russia, special counsel Robert Mueller alleged in his redacted report on Russian interference in the 2016 election.
The Internet Research Agency, a Russian troll factory that engaged in social media influence operations during the election, aggressively circulated the conspiracy theories, helping to keep the false claims alive.
The same day Assange falsely indicated Rich was behind the leaks, Stone tweeted a photo of the slain DNC staffer, writing “another dead body in the Clinton’s wake. Coincidence? I think not.”
Steve Bannon, who was serving as Trump’s White House strategist, claimed in a March 2017 text message to CBS “60 Minutes” producer that the murder was a “contract kill, obviously.”
“It sure doesn’t look like a robbery,” Jay Sekulow, one of Trump’s attorneys in the Russia investigation, told Sean Hannity in May 2017. “There’s one thing this thing undercuts is this whole Russia argument, [which] is such subterfuge.”
Deborah Sines, the former assistant U.S. attorney who was in charge of the Rich case until she retired last year, said the conspiracy theories complicated the investigation because it forced authorities to look into the false accusations.
“It appeared to me that it was a very clear campaign to deflect an ongoing federal criminal investigation,” Sines said. “Let’s blame it on Seth Rich. He’s a very convenient target.”
Upon the release of Mueller’s report in April, the Rich family said it hoped the investigation’s findings would stop people from using the death to advance political agendas.
“I hope that people who pushed, fueled, spread, ran headlines, articles, interviews, talk and opinion shows, or in any way used my family’s tragedy to advance their political agendas — despite our pleas that what they were saying was not based on any facts — will take responsibility for the unimaginable pain they have caused us,” Rich’s brother Aaron said in a statement.
Rich was shot twice in the back on July 10, 2016, while walking home from Lou’s City Bar in Washington, D.C. He was on the phone with his girlfriend when he was attacked by two people.
Police have described the death as a botched robbery, believing Rich tried to fight off the assailants, who did not take his wallet or other valuables.
In the month and half before Rich was killed, seven armed robberies took place in the same neighborhood.
“We’ve had so many holdups on the same corner, with the same method of holdup, where two guys grab the person,” Mark Mueller, a neighbor of Rich’s with no relation to the special counsel, said. “They hold a gun to the head, while one person takes the phone and makes the owner of the phone go into the apps and unarm anything that could be traced.”
Sines said she suspects the two people responsible for the death are connected to drug-dealing activity in nearby housing projects.