Michael Isikoff: The Seth Rich conspiracy theory that made “its way straight to Fox News and Sean Hannity ... started as a Russian intelligence plant”

From the July 9 edition of MSNBC's Morning Joe:

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JOE SCARBOROUGH (CO-HOST): That was a mother of Democratic National Committee staffer Seth Rich, whose murder in 2016 continues to fuel conspiracy theories. It's sick, and it is despicable, and sadly, it's something I know a little too much about. Totally sick and despicable, the pain and anguish that is heaped upon parents and loved ones who have already lost their child once, but have to endure it again for cheap political purposes. Let's bring in right now the chief investigative correspondent for Yahoo!, Michael Isikoff. Michael's just launched a new podcast called Conspiracyland, which he dives into the details surrounding Seth Rich's tragic death. Also with us, columnist and deputy editorial page editor at The Washington Post, Ruth Marcus. And Michael, I'll just say it right here, I know too much, unfortunately, about these sort of conspiracy theories and the anguish that it causes family members and loved ones who have already lost somebody, but conspiracy theories are dredged up for cheap political purposes. Talk about what you found.

MICHAEL ISIKOFF (YAHOO! NEWS CHIEF INVESTIGATIVE CORRESPONDENT): Right. Look, this was one of the more insidious conspiracy theories that arose out of the 2016 election. It had so much traction. It was promoted on alt-right websites, Roger Stone, Alex Jones, all the usual crowd, and, you know, eventually makes its way straight to Fox News and Sean Hannity. But what we found, and it was really kind of shocking, is this started as a Russian intelligence plant. Within three days of Seth Rich's murder, when it really was a local crime story -- it had gotten no traction nationally, nobody was paying any attention -- the Russian SVR, which is their version of the CIA, circulates a intelligence bulletin claiming that Seth Rich was on his way to talk to the FBI at 4 in the morning on July 10, 2016, when he was gunned down by a squad of assassins for Hillary Clinton.

SCARBOROUGH: So Michael, you're telling me this conspiracy theory picked up by Trumpists and Sean Hannity actually began as a Russian misinformation campaign?

ISIKOFF: Exactly. It was classic Russian active measures, what the Soviets did during the Cold War, planting conspiracy theories in various newspapers around the world. In this case, they picked an obscure website that's a frequent vehicle for Russian propaganda and it just grew from there. And we traced it all the way directly to the Trump White House, where Steve Bannon is texting to a CBS journalist in 2017, calling, saying huge story, he was a Bernie guy -- about Seth Rich which is not true -- it was a contract kill, obviously. So you go from the Kremlin straight through the alt-right websites, to the Trump White House.


ISIKOFF: The timing is so interesting here. The week that this breaks on Fox News, in a story they later had to retract and acknowledge was -- didn't meet their editorial standards, Sean Hannity is shouting it from the rooftops. What's going on that week? It's the week that Mueller is appointed. It's the week Comey is fired. It's when the Russia story is blowing up. What better way to deflect from the Russia story than to point the finger at this, you know, this guy in Washington who was shot in an armed robbery. It wasn't the Russians, it was Seth Rich. That's what -- you know, that was the whole subtext of what Sean Hannity was pushing that week. And who does he have on? Jay Sekulow. Didn't say it at the time, Sekulow had just been named as Trump's lawyer in the Russia investigation. And he's saying -- what is he saying on Fox News? This undercuts the whole Russia narrative. That was the message they were pushing with this.


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