On the face of things, the July 2016 murder of Seth Rich had intrigue enough for a full season of House of Cards.
Unknown assailants gun down the young DNC data analyst at 4 A.M. on a Washington, D.C., street and take nothing. Two weeks later, international man of mystery Julian Assange strongly suggests on Dutch TV that Rich was his source for the purloined DNC emails then roiling the Democratic Party and offers a $20,000 reward to find the killer.
Three days before the November election, Assange reportedly tells liberal media analyst Ellen Ratner that Rich was indeed his source. Days after Trump's inauguration, legendary investigative journalist Sy Hersh cites an FBI report confirming Assange's claim. Later that year, DNC honcho Donna Brazile dedicates her book Hacks to Rich and wonders out loud whether the Russians had "played some part in his unsolved murder."
Despite the stakes — the Trump presidency hinged on the investigation's outcome — there was to be no TV series about Rich's life and death, no movie, no serious books, not even a single episode of Unsolved Mysteries or 48 Hours. Incredibly, no major publication or network save for Fox News has even attempted to resolve the still unsolved murder, and Fox execs rather wish they hadn't.
To understand how a story this potentially explosive could be suppressed for so long, it is necessary to understand one basic fact of Washington life: Donald Trump received just 4.1 percent of the District's vote in the 2016 election. Trump's election disrupted short-term strategies and long-term expectations in every one of the capital's major institutions, local and federal, public and private, the legal community among them.
According to Hersh, Trump was a "circuit breaker," one who made a whole lot of enemies. Those enemies, as we have seen, would go to great lengths to discredit Trump and anyone associated with him. The pressure they can bring to bear on even those who want to tell the truth remains formidable.
Instead of a serious investigation by either police or reporters, the Seth Rich case generated a dumpster-full of frivolous lawsuits. These suits have had the result, likely intended, of silencing those who would dare to investigate Rich's demise. All too predictably, the media have heaped abuse on the investigators and cheered on the litigators.
Prominent among the private citizens who asked questions is Ed Butowsky, a Republican wealth manager from Texas. "It is horrible," he told me. "I had no idea how big the other side is, and they are completely after me." Once he started inquiring into Rich's death, said Butowsky, "everything just turned to crap."
Butowsky stumbled into his role as sleuth. Through his occasional TV appearances, Butowsky met Ellen Ratner, a friend of Assange. Her late brother Michael Ratner had been one of the American lawyers for the fugitive WikiLeaks founder. On the day after the election, Ratner lobbed a grenade into an otherwise banal panel discussion at Florida's Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University.
"I spent three hours with Julian Assange on Saturday at the Ecuadorian Embassy in London," Ratner volunteered midway through the event. "One thing he did say was the leaks were not from, they were not from the Russians. They were an internal source from the Hillary campaign or from somebody that knew Hillary, an enemy."
If the grenade had detonated, Ratner would have blown a hole in a collusion plot that centered on the presumed Russian hack of the DNC. Fortunately for the plotters, Ratner's self-involved fellow panelists skipped over her comments, and the video of the event passed into the ether all but unseen.
According to a complex, multi-party defamation suit Butowsky filed in 2019, Butowsky learned of the Assange revelation from Ratner herself. She contacted him after the meeting and added the critical detail that Seth Rich was Assange's source.
On December 17, Butowsky contacted Rich's parents, Joel and Mary Rich. He felt sorry for the Riches, sensing they would get no help from the D.C. Police or the FBI. In addition, as Ratner reportedly told him, Assange had requested that the parents be made aware of Seth's role, a material fact in the search for their son's killers.
According to Butowsky, Joel Rich told him he knew that Seth and his older brother Aaron were involved with the DNC email leak. Joel chose not to go public lest people think his sons were "responsible for getting Trump elected." Although the Riches would later deny many of Butowsky's claims, no one disputes his offer to hire a private investigator for the Riches or their acceptance of that offer.
In the ensuing days, Ratner's public silence frustrated Butowsky. On December 29, 2016, he sent an email to Ratner saying, "If the person you met with truly said what he did, is their [sic] a reason you we aren't reporting it ?" That same day, Ratner responded, "because--- it was a family meeting---- I would have to get his permission--will ask his new lawyer, my sister-in-law."
Butowsky had one other lively source of information. In January 2017, he recorded a phone conversation with the profane and refreshingly candid Pulitzer Prize–winner Sy Hersh. As Hersh related, the D.C. Police called in the FBI when its cyber unit failed to open Rich's computer. The FBI's "hot s---" cyber team succeeded and filed a report. According to that report, Rich "submitted a series of juicy emails from the DNC" to the WikiLeaks drop box and asked Assange for money in exchange for more emails
Eager for confirmation, Butowsky asked Hersh if he had seen the FBI report himself. Hersh admitted he had not. He explained that he had someone on the inside who had seen it, and that person, over the years, had proved "unbelievably accurate" in providing Hersh information.
Although not an ardent Trump fan — he donated to Obama in 2007 and initially supported Carly Fiorina in 2016 — Butowsky thought the media were screwing the new president over. The apolitical Hersh agreed. "Trump's not wrong to think they all lied about him," he said. "I have a narrative of how that whole f------ [Russia collusion] thing began. It's a [CIA director John] Brennan operation. American disinformation."
For the next several months, Butowsky worked behind the scenes helping Fox News try to shed light on Rich's death. On May 16, 2017, a report by Malia Zimmerman was published on the Fox News website headlined "Slain DNC staffer had contact with WikiLeaks, investigator says."
A book could be written about the unraveling of the Fox story, but, in brief, Butowsky went wrong by hiring the investigator in question, former D.C. homicide detective Rod Wheeler. Wheeler's quickly proven deceptions forced Fox to retract the story.
New York attorney Douglas Wigdor was the one person to sense Wheeler's real potential. "Wigdor is the central point of all this," Butowsky told me. Although his name seems to have been lifted from a Harry Potter novel, Wigdor was all business.
On August 1, 2017, his law firm filed a suit on behalf of Wheeler against Butowsky, Fox News, and Zimmerman. In the suit Wheeler claimed that Zimmerman had misquoted him to "establish that Seth Rich provided WikiLeaks with the DNC emails to shift blame away from Russia."
The news of the lawsuit cheered the hearts of reporters everywhere except Fox. Most in the media failed to notice that a week after suing on behalf of Wheeler, Wigdor sent a letter to British regulatory agency Ofcom, citing the Wheeler suit as a reason to block the purchase of Britain's Sky Television by Fox News's parent company, 21st Century Fox.
If no one else in the media noticed, the smear artists at Media Matters certainly did. Its president, Angela Carusone, sent a lengthy letter to Ofcom confirming that Fox "exhibited tacit support for politically motivated misinformation." Butowsky argues that the Wheeler suit was a setup for Wigdor "to extort money from Fox."
As I document in my book, Unmasking Obama: The Fight to Tell the True Story of a Failed Presidency, the media routinely defamed citizens — from Joe the Plumber to James O'Keefe — who attempted to thwart their narrative. NPR's lengthy hit piece on Butowsky is a classic in the genre.
In the report produced on August 17, 2017, NPR's David Folkenflik does not so much as mention Wigdor, let alone his maneuvering against Fox News. Instead, he does a dumpster dive into Butowsky's past. His not so subtle point in this disgraceful bit of pseudo-journalism is that a man who would fudge his academic credentials, however trivially, could not be trusted to tell the truth about Seth Rich.
Folkenflik adds not a whit of new information about the death of Seth Rich. He assures his audience a year after the murder that the D.C. Police "believed [Rich's] shooting was the result of a botched armed robbery." Believed? That's it? Folkenflik also fails to mention Ellen Ratner. At the expense of his own credibility, Butowsky kept his promise not to reveal her role.
Ratner repaid him. In March 2018, two weeks after Joel and Mary Rich sued Butowsky, et al. for "emotional distress," Ratner wrote an article for WorldNetDaily titled "I love my conservative friends!" She specifically cites Butowsky, "the man involved in the Seth Rich controversy." Ratner adds coyly, "Some say he had the secrets of the Democratic National Committee, and some think he was just murdered."
On August 2, 2018, a federal judge in Manhattan dismissed the suits brought both by the Riches and by Wheeler. Judge George Daniels was particularly cool to Wheeler, ruling that he failed to prove he had been misquoted and "had also given his tacit consent to the article's publication." Aaron Rich has sued Butowsky as well. Fed up with the harassment, Butowsky fired back with his own suit in March 2019.
In July 2019, Michael Isikoff of Yahoo News released a six-part podcast called "Conspiracyland," in which the former claimed that "Russian intelligence agents" planted the story that Rich was the source of the leaked emails. This laughably lopsided podcast deserves a deconstruction of its own. Isikoff, it should be remembered, was the reporter first designated to spread the Christopher Steele nonsense. Yet three years after that embarrassment, Isikoff was still treating Intelligence Community reports about Russian mischief as though they were gospel.
The critical revelation in the Isikoff story is that Ratner denies telling Butowsky about Seth Rich. In what sounds like a staged phone call, Ms. Ratner did protest too much. "I had never heard of this character," she tells Isikoff about Rich. This was an extraordinary claim for any journalist to have made, let alone a friend of Assange. Ratner spoke to Butowsky four months after Rich's well publicized murder.
Once he learned of Ratner's denial, Butowsky amended his suit to include her involvement in the affair. He also shared publicly the post–Election Day video of Ratner's panel discussion as well as audio evidence confirming Ratner as his source. The major media wanted to know none of this. A Google search of "Ratner Butowsky" leads to no publication higher on the media food chain than Rolling Stone.
Andy Kroll's August 2020 article, "Killing the Truth," takes up where Isikoff left off. In this exhaustive waste of time and energy, Kroll cherry-picks his way through the available evidence and essentially accuses Butowsky of concocting everything he ever said about Ratner or Joel Rich, an accusation that shocked anew the long since jaded Texan.
As to Seth Rich himself, all that Kroll can tell his readers is that his murder was "just an attempted robbery gone wrong," the lone fatality among "the rash of armed muggings" in his neighborhood that summer.
A botched robbery it may have been, but four years after Rich's death, the skeptic has to ask: couldn't Kroll or Isikoff or any major media reporter interview at least one of the other mugging victims? Couldn't they at least look for fresh forensic evidence? Couldn't they put aside their Fox-phobia for a moment and at least fake an interest in finding the killers of the unfortunate Seth Rich?
Or, better still, couldn't someone in the Intelligence Community — anyone — ask Julian Assange what he really knows?
Jack Cashill's new book, Unmasking Obama, is now widely available. To learn more see www.Cashill.com.