If you’re on the left side of the U.S. political axis, your news feed for the last three days has probably been filled with outraged stories about President Trump disclosing sensitive intelligence to Russian officials as they visited the Oval Office.
If you’re on the right side of that axis, your news feed has been dominated lately by a very different Russia story: a private investigator’s claim that a former Democratic National Committee analyst named Seth Rich sent thousands of DNC emails to WikiLeaks last May, then was murdered a few weeks later. To countless Trump-friendly observers on the right, the claim proved that the whole Russia-meddling-in-the-U.S.-election thing was, ahem, #fakenews.
Granted, both sides exhibited the sort of credulity and confirmation bias that have helped cement the polarization of the electorate. Many of Trump’s critics took the Washington Post’s initial report as Gospel, even though it relied entirely on leaks from anonymous sources that couldn’t possibly be verified.
(Think about it: Unless and until we find out that Trump has in fact been taping all the conversations in the Oval Office, we can’t know for sure what’s being said in there. That might actually be a boon for those who want to accuse Trump of everything under the sun, because all the president can do is issue a denial — like the ones his aides have issued and subsequently recanted several times this year.)
But at least the Post’s report was echoed by several competing national publications with their own sources within the administration. And while Trump and key aides offered a somewhat different spin on the proceedings, the essence of the Post’s story — that the president shared classified intelligence information gathered by another country with Russian officials in a way that disturbed some of our allies — has not been contested.
Though Trump’s critics were losing their minds over the intelligence-sharing story, Trump’s defenders were rejoicing over a report by the Fox television station in Washington that breathed new life into speculation launched last year by WikiLeaks honcho Julian Assange. The piece quoted Rod Wheeler, an investigator working for Rich’s family, saying there was evidence on Rich’s laptop showing he had communicated with WikiLeaks, and that the police and the FBI were engaged in a cover-up.
Fox News followed that up with its own story, which cited an unnamed “federal investigator” who claimed that he had seen and read emails Rich had exchanged with Gavin MacFadyen, a now-deceased filmmaker with links to WikiLeaks. This investigator told Fox that “44,053 emails and 17,761 attachments between Democratic National Committee leaders, spanning from January 2015 through late May 2016, were transferred from Rich to MacFadyen before May 21” of that year.
Those are oddly precise numbers, and they’re large enough to make Rich seem like the source. WikiLeaks released two caches of emails from the DNC — 19,252 on July 22, 2016, and 8,263 just before election day.
For its part, Rich’s family has denounced the conspiracy-mongering while saying that Wheeler violated his contractual obligation not to talk to the press without the family’s consent. The Washington police denied the alleged cover-up, and NBC News offered its own anonymous law-enforcement source saying the FBI never was involved and there were no emails related to WikiLeaks on Rich’s laptop.
Wheeler, a former homicide detective and a Fox News contributor, is best known in some circles for advancing the theory that violent lesbian gangs were raping young girls and terrorizing people across the country. According to the family, Wheeler’s work for them was arranged and financed by a Dallas financial advisor who’s a contributor to Breitbart News. And hours after the initial Fox story broke, Wheeler told CNN that he had not actually seen any evidence connecting Rich to Wikileaks — he’d gotten that information, he said, from the reporter interviewing him.
Even the right-of-center Washington Examiner has suggested that maybe, just maybe, readers shouldn’t put their faith in this particular version of history.
The bigger problem for Trump’s defenders is that the DNC wasn’t the only organization hacked — there were at least two other successful thefts of emails from people allied with Democratic candidate Hillary Clinton, both of them apparently after Rich’s death. Also, security researchers at Crowdstrike found compelling evidence that a) two highly sophisticated entities had intruded into the DNC’s computers, b) those entities’ methods matched the modus operandi of two groups that had hacked various countries’ governmental and industrial networks over the years, and c) security researchers were convinced that those groups were tied to the Russian government.
Oh, and yes, a shadowy hacker (or hackers) known as Guccifer 2.0 who’s been linked to the Russian government claimed responsibility for the DNC hack and released a bunch of stolen documents to support that claim. These and other pieces of evidence were enough to convince the FBI, the Department of Homeland Security and the Director of National Intelligence that Russia was behind the hacks.
Josephine Wolff, an assistant professor at Rochester Institute of Technology and a fellow with the New America think tank’s cybersecurity initiative, is skeptical of the proof the FBI offered of Russian culpability. But she said there was “pretty good evidence” to suggest that either the DNC had been hacked by an external intruder, or there’d been a “very, very sophisticated attempt to make it look like there was an external intruder.” Applying Occam’s razor, the simplest and best explanation is that somebody hacked the DNC.
But Occam’s razor has never applied to any story even tangentially related to the Clintons, particularly not one involving a dead body. WorldNetDaily, a conservative website known to traffic in conspiracy theories, has helpfully compiled 33 such cases, and because Seth Rich is one of them, it may be a while before he can rest in peace.
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4:30 a.m. May 18: This post was updated with an additional detail about one of the sources connecting Rich to Wikileaks.