How Sean Hannity became the champion of the Seth Rich conspiracy theory

Sarah Wasko / Media Matters

Even by the recent standards of Fox News, the last two weeks have sent Sean Hannity into a remarkable free fall. In his quest to provide cover to President Donald Trump’s weakened administration, and unrestrained by anyone in the Fox News bureaucracy, Hannity has become the most visible national champion of a vicious and elsewhere-retracted conspiracy theory suggesting that the late Democratic National Committee staffer Seth Rich was murdered because he was a source for WikiLeaks.

Hannity, who is scheduled to return tonight from a vacation that doubled as a respite for his balking advertisers, is completely out of control. And his increasingly volatile actions are inextricably linked to the disastrous circumstances that Trump and Fox News have created for themselves in recent months.

This is the story of how one of America’s most popular conservative commentators dove into the fever swamp and refused to come up for air.

Tiptoeing around the swamp

In the late summer of 2016, as Trump’s presidential bid continued to flag, his campaign and media allies turned to dark, paranoid conspiracy theories. Most of the debate from Hannity and his ilk focused on baseless claims that Hillary Clinton was in ill health, that she had suffered from seizures or a stroke.

But in August, Hannity’s attention turned from whether Clinton was about to die to whether she had recently killed.

On July 10, Rich was shot during what appears to have been a botched robbery while walking home in the early morning. Two weeks later, WikiLeaks released 20,000 emails that had been stolen from the DNC. Conspiracy theorists suggested Rich had been the WikiLeaks source, though The New York Times reported that the emails had actually been stolen by a hacker linked to Russian intelligence.

Though the story should have ended there, it didn’t. WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange brought up Rich unprompted on a Dutch TV program, implying that the deceased DNC staffer had been a source.

It seemed like a perfect story for Hannity, who has mounted obsequious defenses of Trump and dabbled in conspiracy theories about the Clintons. Instead, Hannity repeatedly suggested the allegations were were less than credible, if “fascinating”:

This hesitance to wade into the fever swamps was only temporary. Hannity did not return to the story on his radio show for the rest of the year, and he did not discuss the Rich conspiracies on Fox News, even as several of his colleagues brought the allegations to the network’s audience.

But when he conducted a January 3 interview with Assange, Hannity suggested that WikiLeaks had received documents from a “disgruntled Democrat” who he later noted may have been Rich, a claim he has repeated in recent weeks.

Assange also repeatedly told Hannity that the Russian government was not his source. Now that Assange was casting aspersions on Democrats, Hannity was apparently willing to take this claim at face value, even though the Fox host had previously called for the WikiLeaks founder’s arrest and accused him of “waging war against the U.S.”

Diving into the swamp

Sarah Wasko / Media Matters

By the spring, both Fox News and the Trump administration were in different places than they had been when Hannity brushed off what he had admitted were Seth Rich “conspiracy theories.” The former was in the middle of a massive shake-up that had left Hannity unmoored. And the latter had become consumed by scandals.

At Fox, Bill O’Reilly, a longtime Hannity rival and the King of Cable News, was forced out of the network he helped build in mid-April after a massive advertiser boycott prompted by numerous reports that he had sexually harassed his colleagues. Weeks later, Bill Shine, the former Hannity producer who had risen to become Fox News’ co-president, was forced to resign over his reported role in covering up sexual harassment at the network. His predecessor, Fox founder Roger Ailes, had been pushed out the year before over similar allegations.

Meanwhile, a faltering administration entered a new period of crisis on May 9, when Trump fired FBI director James Comey. Later that week, he admitted that he was acting in response to Comey’s handling of a federal investigation into Russian influence on the 2016 election. The firing kicked off two weeks of brutal stories for the White House that shredded the president’s credibility, put the future of his administration in jeopardy, and strained the ability of Trump's media allies to defend him.

For Hannity, these circumstances were a lake of gasoline. Late on May 15, Fox 5 DC provided the match. In what was billed as an exclusive story, Rod Wheeler, a private detective and Fox News contributor, said he had evidence that Rich had been in contact with WikiLeaks at the time of his death.

At 12:37 a.m. ET May 16, Hannity tweeted out the story with the question “Thoughts twitter??” Over the next half hour and then again early the next morning, as hundreds of replies flooded in, the Fox host highlighted conspiratorial tweets suggesting that a close Clinton operative may have had Rich killed, that Assange had previously said Rich was his source, and that Rich was actually WikiLeaks’ indirect, not direct, source.

But the Rich story quickly fell apart when Wheeler backed off the claims that had been attributed to him. As the Fox affiliate backed away from its report, Hannity leaned into it harder than ever, discussing it on three editions of his Fox News show, and devoting multiple segments to Rich’s murder on each episode of his radio show.

Hannity, a natural propagandist, repeatedly aired clips of Assange’s interviews, and he treated the WikiLeaks founder’s claims about his sources as incontrovertible fact. He questioned law enforcement’s suggestion that Rich was the victim of a botched robbery. And he hyped Wheeler’s claim as an “explosive development” that flies in the face of the “media hysteria meltdown and the alliance to destroy President Trump.”

While it’s unclear if he is acting sincerely or cynically, Hannity is very clear about what he is trying to accomplish with his coverage. He’s pushing this vile conspiracy theory because he thinks it rebuts the avalanche of stories linking Trump and Russia (it doesn’t), and because it allows him to suggest the Clinton camp was willing to stoop to murder (it wasn’t).

In the process, Hannity has alienated himself from mainstream conservatives and thrown his lot in with the most paranoid corners of the internet. On pro-Trump internet communities like Reddit’s subreddit “r/The_Donald,” 4chan, and 8chan, posters praised Hannity for his courage and reveled in the story breaking through to the mainstream. Recoiling from Hannity’s lack of empathy for the Rich family and his unwillingness to yield to common decency, more serious conservative figures joined the chorus of commentators rightfully condemning Hannity’s actions.

Faced with widespread infamy and criticism from Rich’s family, Hannity responded by declaring himself the one person who was really interested in getting to the bottom of the murder in the face of pressure to shut him up. “I am not backing off asking questions even though there's an effort that nobody talk about Seth Rich,” he said on his May 19 Fox show.

What followed was not investigative journalism, but an epic freakout.

Drowning in the swamp

On May 20, Hannity announced the next step in his so-called investigation: an interview with Kim Dotcom, a hacker “now fighting extradition to the United States on copyright infringement and wire fraud” who claimed to have proof linking Rich and WikiLeaks.

He followed that announcement up with a Sunday night Twitter meltdown demanding that Congress investigate Rich’s murder, declaring that Democrats were panicking, and lashing out at his critics as “snowflakes.” Notably, as he prepared to host an alleged criminal hacker in service of a deranged conspiracy theory, Hannity was already positioning himself for martyrdom, asking his fans, “Any bets when the kitchen sink is dumped on my head??” And after retracted its story and Media Matters published a list of Sean Hannity’s Fox News advertisers, Hannity was defiant. “All you in the liberal media, I am not or, I retracted nothing,” he said. An hour before his show was to air, he tweeted that he stood by everything he had said, and promised: “More at 10 pm tonight.”

But minutes before the show started, he revealed on Twitter that he had just spoken with three of his attorneys. And when the lights came up on his Fox News broadcast, Kim Dotcom was nowhere to be found. Instead, Hannity declared that “out of respect for the family's wishes -- for now -- I am not discussing this matter at this time.”

Hannity also revealed what was really motivating the shift. “Media Matters is attacking my advertising base,” he said. “That is what we have called on this program liberal fascism, attack, boycott, all in an effort to silence conservatives.”

The Fox host swiftly made clear that he didn’t really care about the family, which had begged him repeatedly to stop exploiting Seth’s death. Before his show had even concluded, he was telling his Twitter followers that he was “closer to the TRUTH than ever” and that he was “not stopping.”

He followed that up the next day with a lengthy Twitter rant against Media Matters accusing us of, among other things, attacking only conservatives. In an interview with HuffPost, he said we are attempting “to take [him] out” and attempting a “kill shot.” As he offers vitriolic defenses while continuing to hint at Rich conspiracy theories on air, advertisers are starting to head for the exits.

Hannity has spent the last weeks pushing reckless conspiracy theories about an innocent murder victim in a desperate effort to preserve the president’s power and fend off his increasingly aggressive foes. These are the depths to which he has been willing to stoop within the first four months of the Trump administration. As the administration continues its collapse -- and as Hannity apparently faces no restraints other than his own fear of going out like O’Reilly -- there’s no telling how low he can go.  

Additional research provided by Shelby Jamerson.