Jay Sekulow parroted Seth Rich conspiracy theories on Hannity’s Fox show -- then became the president’s lawyer

Sarah Wasko / Media Matters

Fox News didn't deliver on its promised Seth Rich coverage investigation, so Media Matters is doing it instead. This is the fourth in a series marking the two-year anniversary of Fox’s publication of a story -- retracted seven days later -- that promoted the conspiracy theory that the murdered Democratic National Committee staffer, and not the Russians, had provided the DNC emails to WikiLeaks. Read part one, part two, part three, part five, and our timeline of events.

Just a few weeks before he became President Donald Trump’s personal lawyer, Jay Sekulow appeared on Sean Hannity’s Fox News show to express support for the vicious conspiracy theory that the July 2016 murder of Democratic National Committee staffer Seth Rich had been in retaliation for Rich leaking internal emails to WikiLeaks.

In May 2017, after Fox published a story on the subject that it eventually had to retract, Hannity became the most prominent champion of this vile conspiracy theory. Long after the story fell apart, the volatile Fox star was using his Twitter feed and his national radio and cable news shows to promote it as part of his partisan defense of Trump from allegations of Russian collusion. Day after day, as Rich’s family begged him to stop, Hannity argued that if the DNC staffer had given WikiLeaks the emails that the group released during the 2016 presidential campaign, it would debunk the U.S. intelligence community’s conclusion that Russian hackers were behind the DNC email hack and undermine its broader contention that Russia had been trying to secure Trump’s election.

Sekulow, a conservative attorney and talk radio host with deep ties to the religious right and a fixture on Fox News and other conservative media outlets, was one of the guests Hannity leaned on most in the spring and summer of 2017 as the host sought to minimize the Trump-Russia reporting. In two May 2017 segments, their discussion turned to the Rich’s death, with Sekulow eagerly agreeing with Hannity’s adoption of the conspiracy theory.

May 16, 2017, was a big day for the Seth Rich conspiracy theory. FoxNews.com published its dubiously thin, hastily edited story that morning alleging that Rich had been in contact with and given tens of thousands of DNC emails to a WikiLeaks operative, and that his murder had subsequently been covered up. Over the course of the day other news outlets debunked its various claims, the Rich family and the Washington, D.C., police issued denials, and the story’s only named source started walking back his claims. By the time Hannity began his Fox show at 10 p.m. EST, the story was in shambles.

That didn’t stop Hannity from devoting a substantial portion of his opening monologue to the “massive breaking news story” or hosting Sekulow to tease out the story’s implications. Hannity asked the right-wing lawyer whether, based on the story, it is “possible that this whole Russia narrative was -- and the leaks really came from a DNC staffer and that the media's been wrong for almost a year.”

“Well, Sean, the media has not been right yet,” Sekulow replied. “So the -- you know, the presumption should be that the media is wrong with where they're laying the blame on the leaks that are going on now.”

Sekulow called the timeline of Rich’s death “troubling, to say the least,” adding, “It raises a serious issue and a serious concern that our national security is being jeopardized in ways we don't fully understand.”

Two nights later, every other Fox program had stopped talking about the story and the Rich family had demanded a retraction and apology from the network for “damaging the legacy of their son.” But Hannity, with Sekulow’s help, was still pushing the conspiracy theory on his Fox show.

This time, Sekulow speculated that some aspects of Rich’s death suggested that he had been targeted for death rather than being the victim of a botched robbery, as law enforcement had surmised. Sekulow, whose specialty is First Amendment law, claimed to be “familiar with this area.”

“It does not fit the classic definition of robbery because the deceased -- nothing was taken,” he said. “So that means it really wasn't a robbery based on what we know but rather a murder. And there's a fundamental difference both to the criminality of that and to the way in which it would proceed through investigation.”

“It sounds like murder one,” he added. “It sounds like premeditated murder; they targeted this individual.” He then raised questions about whether law enforcement was covering up what happened, saying, “The unfortunate situation is that it's been classified. I guess the police are classifying it as a robbery, the detectives.” Sekulow went on to speculate that Rich’s death was linked to his job at the DNC, saying, “There’s a lot more to this, I would suspect. I mean, you can’t ignore the fact that it was a DNC staff member.”

Picking up on that thread, Hannity questioned whether the WikiLeaks emails had been leaked by someone “disgruntled at how they cheated Bernie Sanders. … Couldn't you see somebody seeing that gross injustice, saying this is outrageous, and wanting it exposed, the truth told?”

“That happens all the time inside of a political campaign, so that's not unusual,” Sekulow replied. “The tragic aspect of it here is of course the media continuing to harp on the Russia source of the leaks which [WikiLeaks founder] Julian Assange pretty much denies, pretty unequivocally. ... That begs the question, and it's an unfortunate question to have to address, and that is there's a dead 27-year-old in Washington, D.C., who happened to be a DNC employee, and Julian Assange is at least making statements that it could be this individual.” (Special counsel Robert Mueller would later indict 12 Russian intelligence agents for hacking the DNC and other Democrats and conclude that Assange and WikiLeaks had made “a number of statements about Seth Rich,” which “implied falsely that he had been the source of the stolen DNC emails.”)

“I think this whole Russian argument, Sean, is such subterfuge from reality,” Sekulow concluded.

Sekulow and Hannity had laid out the entire conspiracy theory, based on little more than Assange’s claims and speculation. They didn’t want to believe that the Russians had given emails to WikiLeaks, because that could implicate Trump and prove the media correct. So instead they wove a story that suggested that Rich was an embittered employee who gave the organization the documents, then was mysteriously murdered in retaliation, with the police covering up the crime.

Over the next few weeks, Rich’s grieving parents and brother would plead with conservative news outlets and Hannity in particular to find “decency and kindness” and stop their “unspeakably cruel” coverage. Hannity would continue to promote the conspiracy theory, even as advertisers fled his show.

And Sekulow would be hired by Trump because the Fox-obsessed president reportedly thought he did “a good job defending him on TV."