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The Mueller report might not end the debate over what President Donald Trump did, but it has scuttled one conspiracy theory involving a murdered Democratic party staffer and WikiLeaks.
Well into 2017, Fox News host Sean Hannity championed the hunt for details about 27-year-old Seth Rich, who was shot and killed near his home in Washington, D.C., not long before the first WikiLeaks dump of Democratic emails in July 2016. Rich had been working on voter access projects for the Democratic National Committee. The police believed he was the victim of a botched robbery.
Hannity and others thought Rich had been killed because, as the conspiracy theory goes, he was the true source — not Russia — of the DNC files that WikiLeaks shared with the world to damage Hillary Clinton.
At one point, Fox News aired, and then quickly retracted, a report that said the FBI had proof that Rich was WikiLeaks’ source. (We dug into the lawsuit that Fox News drew in the wake of that broadcast. The suit was unsuccessful.)
The special counsel’s report places WikiLeaks and its founder Julian Assange at the epicenter of those rumors about Rich.
"As reports attributing the DNC and DCCC hacks to the Russian government emerged, WikiLeaks and Assange made several public statements apparently designed to obscure the source of the materials that WikiLeaks was releasing," the Mueller report says.
The report quotes from an Aug. 25, 2016, interview Assange gave to Megyn Kelly on Fox News. A couple of weeks earlier, WikiLeaks had offered a $20,000 reward for information on Rich’s killer. Without flat-out saying that Rich was the WikiLeaks source, Assange did nothing to dispel the notion on Fox News.
"We're very interested in anything that might be a threat to alleged WikiLeak sources," he told Kelly. "We're not saying that Seth Rich's death necessarily is connected to our publication. That's something that has to be established. But if there's any question about a source of WikiLeaks being threatened, then people can be assured that this organization will go after anyone who may have been involved in some kind of attempt to coerce or possibly, in this case, kill a potential source."
Assange’s fuzzy answer is consistent with another interview he gave. Assange had told CNN in July 2016 that WikiLeaks likes "to create maximum ambiguity as to who our sources are."
The special counsel report asserts without a shade of doubt that Russia hacked the Democratic servers and passed that material to WikiLeaks.
Investigators acknowledge that they can’t be totally sure how those files were transferred. The material might have been downloaded or hand-delivered.
But one thing is certain: It wasn’t Seth Rich.
U.S. Justice Department, Report On The Investigation Into Russian Interference In The 2016 Presidential Election, redacted report released April 18, 2019
Fox News, Assange: Murdered DNC Staffer Was 'Potential' WikiLeaks Source, Aug. 25, 2016
Newsweek, Sean Hannity, who said Seth Rich was murdered by Democrats, staying mum on Trump lawsuit, Aug. 2, 2017
Fox News, Seth Rich, slain DNC staffer, had contact with WikiLeaks, say multiple sources, May 16, 2017
NPR, Behind Fox News' Baseless Seth Rich Story: The Untold Tale, Aug. 1, 2017
Breitbart, Julian Assange Claims Russia Wasn’t Involved in DNC Hack, Aug. 5, 2016
Breitbart, WikiLeaks Offer $20,000 Reward for Information on Murdered DNC Staffer, Aug. 9, 2016
CNN, Julian Assange: 'A lot more material' coming on US elections, July 26, 2016
PolitiFact, The baseless claim that slain DNC staffer Seth Rich gave emails to WikiLeaks, May 21, 2017
Washington Post, "A conspiratorial tale of murder, with Fox News at the center," May 17, 2017
PolitiFact, Seth Rich: Separating fact and speculation, Aug. 7, 2017