IE 11 is not supported. For an optimal experience visit our site on another browser.

Discussing the death and life of Seth Rich with Andy Kroll: podcast and transcript

Chris Hayes speaks with author and ProPublica reporter Andy Kroll about Seth Rich's life and the widespread conspiracy theories formed after the young DNC staffer's death.

Seth Rich was a young DNC staffer in Washington who was tragically murdered early one morning in 2016. Our WITHpod guest this week described him as smart, ambitious, telegenic and someone who might run a presidential campaign someday. In the absence of an arrest, questions remain about who killed Rich. Unfounded theories about the motives for his murder continue to circulate on social media, including ones that enmeshed the Clintons and other high-profile figures. The search for answers, and this age of widespread disinformation, is the subject of “A Death on W Street: The Murder of Seth Rich and the Age of Conspiracy,” written by ProPublica reporter Andy Kroll. The true-crime story unravels this saga of murder, deceptions about what happened and the role of conspiracy mongers in disparaging Rich’s memory. Kroll, who actually knew Rich, joins WITHpod to discuss Rich’s life, death and what happened to his story once it got into the hands of numerous bad actors.

Note: This is a rough transcript — please excuse any typos.

Andy Kroll: Someone you met at a party one time and thought to yourself, man that guy is going somewhere. He's smart, he's telegenic, he's ambitious. He's going to be running a presidential campaign in the next 10 years, no question. And then you find out he's dead, murdered not that far from where I live here in D.C.

So, I felt it on that personal level, but then when this local news story, this private family matter gets transformed into a political story, a viral meme, a hashtag, a billion threads on Reddit and 4chan, that's when the switch happened for me. That is when I felt these two separate worlds of mine collide, the personal, the day job and I thought I just have to know what the heck is going on here.

Chris Hayes: Hello and welcome to the "Why Is This Happening?" with me, your host, Chris Hayes.

You know, I think one of the central experiences of our age is a sense of constant vertigo and dislocation as regards information about the world. First of all, there's just a lot of it, there's obviously too much of it to pay attention to. There's also a lot of things that are just wrong that are floating around. It's very hard to figure out what's wrong and what's right, sometimes a tweet will go viral, and it will turn out to be like satire or photoshopped or some random person like took something wildly out of context.

And then at a bigger level, you see entire media platforms devoted to untruths, whether that's about the election lie or about vaccine efficacy. And I mean, look, it's easy to get overly presentist about this. It's always hard to separate fact from fiction and things that are true from things that are not. The world is complicated and there's all kinds of stuff, like I love when there's like some big dispute in some country you don't follow, and you like you try to get into it. It's like, was the trial against Lula in Brazil like actually corrupt or like did he do the thing? And it's like, well good luck trying to figure that out, just come beaming in from 30,000 feet, particularly when you arrived in very contested debates.

That said, if you were to ask me, what's the moment where it felt like we veered off into a new level of surreality, disinformation, confusion, and vertigo, I think it's pretty clearly 2016. Like, the 2016 was really -- it really did feel like that year and that campaign and the rise of Donald Trump represented us moving off course that we were on. Not the course we were on was like amazing, like, well everyone agreed about the facts like, you know, like one of the major parties had been denying climate change for 20 years. But the level, the acuteness of almost deranged counterfactual narrative and disinformation was truly headspinning. It elevated to the highest levels. It moved from the margins to the center. It set the agenda often for mainstream discourse.

And there's one particular example of that, that is in some ways a microcosm, in some ways a kind of allegory, and in some ways just an actual example of this phenomenon, which is the death of a DNC staff named Seth Rich. Seth Rich was a young, DNC staffer who tragically was murdered in Washington D.C. late one night in 2016. A private tragedy, an awful, awful, awful thing to happen, brutal for his family and friends and the people who love him, that then got pulled into an updraft of conspiratorial insanity that basically pointed to him as a central figure in this grand conspiracy.

My guest today is someone who wrote a book about this chronicle, about Seth Rich, his life, his death, his legacy, and what happened to his story once it got into the hands of all kinds of bad actors. It's an incredibly well-told tale. It's very humane and empathetic and also really provocative and an incredible tale about what it means to live and die in the informational universe we live in now. His name is Andy Kroll. He's a reporter of ProPublica. I've known him for a long time. He's a great reporter, and the book is called, "A Death on W Street: The Murder of Seth Rich and the Age of Conspiracy." And Andy it's great to have you in the program.

Andy Kroll: It's great to be here. Thanks for having me, Chris.

Chris Hayes: Just talk to me first about the origins of this because you knew Seth Rich. This starts as a personal story, not a reporting story. So, just tell us a little bit about who he was, how you knew him and what happened.

Andy Kroll: It was a strange experience for me as a reporter. When you start on a big story, let alone a book, it comes from a source that you have or a particularly intriguing piece of information you read in the news, a tip that comes across the transom, and you take it in, absorb it and pursue it with your investigative reporter hat on.

But for this story, it was a text message from a friend of mine, someone who has nothing to do with journalism, nothing to do with politics, anything like that, just a buddy, with a link to the local news story that said Seth had been killed on July 10th, 2016 in this tragic matter of a wrong place, wrong time situation.

And for a couple of weeks there, I followed the news of what had happened to Seth as the details trickled out, as memorials happened and the funeral took place back in his hometown of Omaha, as not a journalist but a peer or someone who traveled in similar social circles. It's like someone you met at a party one time and thought to yourself, man, that guy is going somewhere.

Chris Hayes: Yes.

Andy Kroll: He's smart, he's telegenic, he's ambitious. He's going to be running a presidential campaign in the next 10 years, no question. And then you find out he's dead, murdered not that far from where I live here in D.C., so I felt it on that personal level.

But then, when this local news story, this private family matter gets transformed into a political story, a viral meme, a hashtag, a billion threads on Reddit and 4chan, that's when the switch happened for me. That is when I felt these two separate worlds of mine collide, the personal, the day job, and I thought, I just have to know what the heck is going on here. I have to know how this has happened.

There is this moment when the personal and the journalistic collided. I remember sitting at my desk in August, probably, of 2016 and I saw #sethrich trending on Twitter. I thought to myself, what the heck is going on? How is that possible? I had followed some of the small conspiratorial chatter that had popped up right after he'd been killed, but not at this level, nothing had blown up in the way that I was now seeing it blow right before my eyes. And really from that point onward, August of 2016, I've been chasing the story, reporting on it, trying to understand again what happened, how this could happen, and eventually got to a point where I thought, I can't fit this into a story or two or three. This is really a book, and that's what led me to write the book.

Chris Hayes: Tell me about who Seth Rich was. What was he doing for the DNC and what do we know about the circumstances of his death?

Andy Kroll: Seth was from Omaha, Nebraska, a Democrat in an overwhelmingly Republican state. He grew up weaned on The West Wing, on watching C-SPAN in his free time in his bedroom at home. He was a total political nerd, a junkie. He followed Congressional races and redistricting fights in his home state the way we follow sports scores and eventually how our college did on a football game over the weekend. He was obsessed with this stuff.

He moved to Washington the first chance he got after graduating from Creighton University again in Omaha, and he wanted to be in the middle of the action. He was like so many people who flocked to Washington after college. They want to make their mark. They want to make a difference in the world. They want to play some small part and maybe someday a bigger part in the story of the country and its government and that was Seth.

He described himself as a patriot. He wore crazy stars and stripes outfits on 4th of July, in part as a sort of winking gag with his friends, but in part also because he believed that stuff. He was earnest about how much he loved his country, how much he cared about American democracy. When he was killed, he was working for the DNC in the voter expansion department. He was the only non-lawyer on the team of lawyers, trying to figure out ways to expand the franchise basically, how do we find Democratic votes, wherever they are, and get them to vote? How do we find people who aren't registered, get them to register, so that they can vote?

He really believed in voting is the lifeblood of the country and that regardless of whether you're a Democrat, you're a Republican, the country was at its best when everyone was participating, everyone is voting, everyone's voice was heard. That was what he was doing on the day he was killed. He was about to accept the job on the Clinton campaign, doing similar work, and that would have fulfilled a dream of his. He always wanted to work on a presidential campaign and he was maybe a week or two away from that when he died.

Chris Hayes: How old was he?

Andy Kroll: Twenty-seven years old.

Chris Hayes: And he had been at the DNC for a few years at that point?

Andy Kroll: Yes, he had been there for two and a half, three years at that point. He had been through a bruising midterm election, which I think opened his eyes to the less savory parts, the less glamorous parts of working in politics. I think he had come to see that politics in real life is not The West Wing and not everyone is walk and talks and quippy one-liners and the idealism of President Bartlet.

He loved that show but was also coming to grips with the fact that, that's not exactly how politics works, certainly not how politics worked in 2016, as you described earlier/ But he still wanted to work in voting. He wanted to continue this passion of his, something again that he had been passionate about since he was in high school.

Chris Hayes: So, he's coming home from a bar one night, which is something that I've done in Washington D.C. I have to say that someone I knew, Brian Beutler who now is at Crooked was shot and was in critical condition under extremely similar circumstances back when I was living in D.C. You know, it was someone I knew. They were walking down a block I'd walked down. They had come back late at night. Brian survived, it was extremely traumatic. He's written about it.

But this sounds like a somewhat similar situation basically, like random street crime as far as we can figure.

Andy Kroll: I remember hearing when Brian was shot all those years ago, and I thought about it when I first heard about Seth, walking home 2:00, 3:00 in the morning anywhere in D.C. can be a problematic situation through no fault of the person's own. Seth lived in a neighborhood in D.C. called Bloomingdale, Northwest, but just barely so, kind of hugs North Capitol Street, the big North-South Corridor here.

Bloomingdale at the time had been plagued by armed robberies all summer long. Weirdly same MO as well, two guys, one with a gun, robbing people for their valuables, especially their iPhones, and you can see this in the police reports, which I pulled and compiled for the book. The two guys would stop people, usually people who were talking on the phone, which Seth was doing at the time he was killed. They would ask for the phone but they would say, disable the Find My Phone tracking app, and then gives us your phone with the gun pointed --

Chris Hayes: Right.

Andy Kroll: -- at their face. And the police have said all along that Seth's murder and the circumstances of it certainly sound a lot like all of these other armed robberies that were happening in Bloomingdale, in Seth's neighborhood. The neighborhood had also been ripped up because they were putting a tunnel underneath it. It floods all the time, so they're trying to fix this problem. And so it's kind of an open-air maze, there's fences everywhere, lights were knocked out. It was just not a good place to be walking around that late at night, talking on the phone.

And from the day that this happened, and from the day that the police announced that Seth had been killed, they said this was an attempted robbery, maybe Seth tried to fight back, maybe there was some kind of altercation. There were some markings on him that suggested that there were, and he was shot several times and did not survive that attack, which unfortunately happens all the time in major American cities. But the details of this crime would fuel so many of the conspiracies that would come afterward, in part because people were looking for a reason to doubt. They weren't looking to buy the official story from the police.

Chris Hayes: Well and it also was a homicide that was not solved. I mean it was not cleared at the time that when the conspiracy theories take off, but that too was extremely common in major American cities and D.C., sort of a shocking percentage of homicides go unsolved.

Andy Kroll: Right, right, that's right. And this is unfortunately one of those cases, the murder is unsolved to this day. The investigation is active but now we're going on six and a half years or so, six-plus years. The police haven't announced suspects. They haven't announced any leads yet, even though the investigation is active. And that alone fuels these theories that come --

Chris Hayes: Right.

Andy Kroll: -- afterward.

Chris Hayes: Right, and part of my point there is that I think part of that is people's unfamiliarity with how shockingly and awfully common it is for people in the West Side of Chicago, in Anacostia Washington D.C., in all kinds of neighborhoods throughout America, particularly neighborhoods that are poor and predominantly non-white, that murders happened without being solved. That happens quite a bit.

When I think I've seen, you know, when I've seen this sort of conspiracy theories like this extra air of mystery that is unsolved, it's like, yeah, a lot of murders in America are unsolved. So, this happens. It's a horrible tragedy obviously and profoundly upsetting for his family, for his friends from around him.

What are the first inklings that this is going to move from a private and terrible tragedy to something else?

Andy Kroll: It's remarkable how fast those initial inklings appear. I went back and almost like a social media archeologist of sorts, retraced as best I could, the origins of these theories about Seth. What I found really interesting was that they began on the far left end of the political spectrum before they eventually moved and would really take off on the right end of the political spectrum.

And you got to go back to, again, this chaotic, insane year of 2016, this presidential election like no other. In the summer of 2016, one of the biggest stories was the state of the Democratic Party and the near civil war between supporters of Senator Bernie Sanders, more on the progressive side, and supporters of Secretary Hillary Clinton, the more centrist establishment Democratic camp.

Clinton had just about sewn up the nomination. She would be named, crowned the nominee at the convention a couple of weeks after Seth was killed. But the animosity, the tension within the party at the time that Seth was killed was at a fever pitch. That is where the Seth Rich conspiracy theories first took hold. It took hold among Sanders supporters and supporters of then Green Party candidate, Jill Stein, to give you a real throwback, shout out here.

And there was speculation among these folks that Seth had been a whistleblower of some kind, that he had been trying to expose the DNC's wrongdoing as it related to Bernie Sanders, that he was somehow a Sanders supporter who is going to blow the lid on how the DNC had stolen the nomination or rigged the nomination process for Clinton and against Sanders, and that's the origin.

People forget that. It's easy to forget it because there's really only a window of a couple of weeks there before these theories would explode on the opposite end of the spectrum but that is where it started within the party. People who were thinking that Seth was this Bernie bro, for a lack of a better way to put it, who was angry about what he had seen in terms of the treatment by the DNC of Sanders.

Chris Hayes: And not just online, not just in threads and Twitter and those kinds of places the people are saying and the implications that it was a hit, right, that he's killed to keep him quiet, to stop him from spilling the beans about DNC wrongdoing.

Andy Kroll: That the Clintons or their emissary, someone working on behalf of the Clinton family had ordered a hit on this DNC staffer because he had tried to expose fraud, wrongdoing, nefarious backdoor dealings of the DNC, that's exactly right. You see this stuff popped up on Twitter. I mean I found tweets and some of them are still there to this day, within minutes of the official announcement, the news breaking on Monday, July 11th, that Seth had been killed. I mean there was no sort of period for percolating or --

Chris Hayes: Right.

Andy Kroll: -- moments where people are trying to figure out what do we say. I mean this was a reflex. This was almost immediate on Twitter, on Reddit, anywhere where there were sort of congregations of Sanders and Stein supporters.

Chris Hayes: More of our conversation after this quick break.

Chris Hayes: To the best of your knowledge, this is just random and essentially organic, right? I mean these are just people who are in an extremely paranoid mindset. There's of course like lineage of the conspiracy theory against the Clintons that goes back to Vince Foster's death and the Clinton body count. And the idea, you know, Vince Foster of course, a friend of Bill and Hillary who worked in the White House which occasion (ph) all kinds of crazy conspiracy theories that went very mainstream, particularly in Republican Party that he had been murdered. He had been whacked by the Clintons.

And there's this idea of like a Clinton body count where the Clintons just go around like having people killed. This was in the ether before Seth Rich and I think it's sort of a necessary context to understanding why anyone is making this particular leap.

Andy Kroll: The only part of the book where I stepped out of the main timeline, where I --

Chris Hayes: Yes, exactly.

Andy Kroll: -- jumped backward from the blow by blow on the book is this really sort of fascinating moment where it's a few days after Seth had been killed, the funeral just happened. Hillary and Bernie are about to appear on stage for their first sort of moment of reconciliation after Clinton had won the nomination effectively. Seth's old colleague, the DNC, thought to themselves, well hey, wouldn't it be great if Hillary said something at this event to remember Seth. Everyone is going to be watching. Media is descending from around the world on little ports of New Hampshire.

Can she like work Seth's name in the speech? She does, and I quote someone who had worked with Seth at the DNC saying, we watched Hillary Clinton say this and the gratitude that this person felt almost immediately melted away into a oh my God, what have we done, knowing that in the ether there's this long history, a lineage is a great word for it of Clinton conspiracy theories and that's the chapter in the book where I jumped back. I actually found this story that I haven't even known about going to the book, about a woman with intern in the Clinton White House.

Chris Hayes: Yup.

Andy Kroll: Very briefly, it was Caity Mahoney. She was an intern. She worked in like the tour guide office and then had left. She was working at Starbucks in Georgetown, a tiny neighborhood here in D.C. and was killed in an attempted armed robbery, noting was taken. She and two other colleagues were pretty brutally murdered by a robber, and then for several years the murder went unsolved, and she became the latest addition to this Clinton body count, that's next to Vince Foster, next to Ron Brown, the former Commerce Secretary, next to all of these people from Arkansas that no one had heard of but had somehow been attached to this Clinton body count list.

And I did that in the book because I feel like people needed to know. Why would folks on the internet immediately jump to the Clintons did this? Why would they immediately suspect a political hit job? I mean that is quite an accusation to make and yet people had been making it, the American politics --

Chris Hayes: Exactly.

Andy Kroll: -- 20 (ph) years at that point.

Chris Hayes: One of the things that you start to see there and you do this in that chapter is you start to see the sort of magnetic logic of conspiracy which is once you start looking for it, once the way you reasoning is, let's find anyone who had any brush of the Clintons who died an untimely death. You start to see this pattern emerged. Now the pattern is nonsense because the pattern could emerge for anyone.

That was how you started to look into someone, right? You're reasoning backwards. It's a deficient means of understanding the world and yet it does have kind of magnetic draw. And so with this already established, there's this kind of vortex pull, right, when Seth Rich dies, that this is a ready-made story there that people picked up immediately.

Andy Kroll: And then it gets to the underlying appeal of conspiracy theories writ large. You're confronted with an event that you find confusing, you don't understand, you're skeptical of what the people in power are telling you happened in this particular instance. Obviously, with trust in any institution on a constant decline, it seems like people are prime to doubt what the official story is. And so, they go looking for alternative explanations. They "do their own research" as we like to hear from conspiracy theorist all the time.

And in this case, it's so easy to make the leap from he was shot and killed, it was an armed robbery gone wrong to no, no, no to the nation's capital, this guy worked for the crooked DNC as so many people like to say it at that point in time. The Clintons have a history of doing this. Of course, something more was going on here. And you know you said a second ago, Chris, presumably this was organic. This was real people doing this.

You know, I found some data in the course of reporting a book showing that, yes, there was some back (ph) activity or the Russian Internet Research Agency came along a month or two after Seth was killed and they amplified some stuff. But this was not a creation of the Russians or the Chinese or some domestic troll farm. I've interviewed people. I interview them for the book who were among the earliest to say, this was a hit. This was politically motivated.

Some of them interestingly have backed away from it in the time since, like I quote a long Reddit thread that was posted again within hours of Seth's murder by a young man in Florida. And I tracked him down and talked to him, and in that case, he said I was just, again, trying to do my own research. I didn't necessarily trust mainstream media. He was a Sanders supporter. He thought that he could advance a story in a way that felt authentic to him.

And you know, five years later, four years later whenever I talked to him, he felt some regret about that, when I talked to him. But I have also talked to people who to this day say, nope, definitely it was a hit, way too many questions, doesn't add up, don't believe the police, you know, your book is nonsense.

Chris Hayes: Right. And I think this point those interviews are fascinating by the way and I was so glad you did them because I do think there's a little bit of a comforting fiction we tell ourselves about disinformation being some product of Russian interference. And clearly it is something that they have pushed and something they amplified, and it isn't a very effective means of like messing with the population but there's just a massive organic part of it too which is like people believe crazy stuff.

They get together in the internet and they goad themselves into believing crazier and crazier stuff and then in the case of where (ph) going to get to, it can get amplified, people with really big platforms. So, all of these is happening immediately after, it's working on the already well-established universe of Clinton conspiracy theories, about them as essentially serial murders who have like hit squads. This is July 10th, July 11th news. When is the first WikiLeaks?

Andy Kroll: August 10th, 2016, a month later.

Chris Hayes: So, it's a month later and that happens right before the DNC. It's timed very obviously to kind of like blow up the DNC, and I remember that because I was in Philadelphia, and it goes off. The first one happens right when, the first posting of WikiLeaks of the purloined e-mails of the campaign manager, John Podesta, right, are posted by WikiLeaks right when Trump is facing the worst crisis of his campaign which is the leaked Access Hollywood tape which he says you can just grab them by the P-word.

It's really disgusting, huge condemnation, people are fleeing him. This is obviously timed to counteract that and it's also right before the convention. What does the appearance of WikiLeaks and the WikiLeaks' e-mails do the Seth Rich conspiracy theorizing?

Andy Kroll: If there was a single moment that happens in the larger arc of the story that if it didn't happen would change the course of history, at least as it relates to Seth Rich and his family. WikiLeaks and Julian Assange's intervention would be that flashpoint. When you laid out this timeline, I'll add a couple of dots to it. You have WikiLeaks releases these stolen e-mails we now know taken from inside the DNC right before Philadelphia.

I was there too. I remember the look of sort of barely contained terror and fear in the eyes of most DNC employees I encountered in Philly. You have the release of Podesta e-mails right after Access Hollywood, very clearly intended to distract and deflect from that. And what you have in between those two things is this really critical moment in the Seth Rich story, critical moment in the book. Julian Assange is giving an interview to a Dutch TV station. To the interviewer's credit, he's pressing Assange, where did you get these stolen e-mails at the time, the DNC e-mail specifically.

You know, cyber security experts are saying this is most likely Russian-relate that some kind of hacking group affiliated with Russia took them and gave them to you. Assange is denying, he's deflecting, he's disingenuous and in this Dutch interview, he says, well, don't you know, he says this out of nowhere without prompting, without any suggestions. So, clearly, he had it in his mind. He says, well, there was this young DNC staffer who was murdered in Washington D.C. recently. Our source get concerned when they see things like that.

Chris Hayes: Oh so despicable.

Andy Kroll: Yes.

Chris Hayes: It's just so despicable. It is an unbelievably despicable thing to do.

Andy Kroll: Yes and I had never thought about Julian Assange and WikiLeaks the same since this moment. Obviously --

Chris Hayes: Yes, same here.

Andy Kroll: -- Unique have written a whole book about this, but it's clear what Assange is doing there but the effect of that online is an explosion of tweets, Reddit posts, memes, Instagram post, everything under the sun saying, Julian Assange just pointed a finger at this guy, Seth Rich. This Russia story is nonsense.

Chris Hayes: The Russian story is nonsense, right. So, there's a few things going on here, right? The DNC leak happens. When do they first start posting the DNC e-mails?

Andy Kroll: Right before the DNC convention, so that's like late July 2016.

Chris Hayes: Right. And it's after those e-mails start to come out that he gives his interview and --

Andy Kroll: Correct.

Chris Hayes: -- at that point there's already people inside the DNC who are like we know, you know, they had hired CrowdStrike, they had hired other outside firms to look at there, like we know this was foreign penetration, like we have a pretty good sense it's the Russians. These are not and those people doing that are not like FBI or government officials. These are just people who don't have a dog in the fight, right? They're brought into like basically run an audit and they're like, "Yeah, we kind of had figured it out where this came from."

And so, it becomes pretty clear that like the Russians have had to be in CE as a form of political interference. They've somehow gotten into Assange, and Assange is now publishing this which is completing the operation on behalf of the Russians whether he knows that or not. We don't know, right, if he knows where it comes from so I'm just going to give it to him.

And he goes on, this Dutch TV, to deflect attention away from the Russians and put it on Seth Rich and in doing so, A. Implying that he was murdered; B. Also implying that Seth Rich was this kind of whistleblower who had secretly been a source and then finally doing the thing that, if they were true, is the most irresponsible thing that you could possibly do for any journalist or anyone which is protecting sources. Like, you would never in a billion years say anything about who your source is if they give you something important.

So, all of that together, it just like the peak of disingenuousness and it's disgusting and that you say in the book, that's the moment where it blows up. It goes from like people saying on the internet to like a thing.

Andy Kroll: And I retraced the hours and days after the Assange interview because it was a little case study of how this tantalizing piece of disingenuous spin could go from the mouth of Julian Assange to the front of the Charge Report which obviously needs its firewall of the internet at that point, that becomes the subject of hundreds of thousands of tweets that ends up on Fox News the following night. You have Eric Bolling who was sitting in for Bill O'Reilly at the time just come out and say, plain as day, that Seth Rich had been killed in a hit. This was not an attempted robbery. This was a hit. That was Eric Bolling said on primetime Fox News after the Assange.

This is the first blow on the first Superspreader Event if you will of the Seth Rich conspiracy theory.

Chris Hayes: And Bolling says it's on Fox News. This is the first time that it gets introduced into the like the cable news Fox-viewing audience, right?

Andy Kroll: That's right, yup.

Chris Hayes: And he says this, I mean, it's just a crazy thing to say. I mean obviously, it's Fox News, it's Eric Bolling so, you know, not surprising but just a, like to say that there was a hit against someone is like a really freaking serious accusation to make.

Andy Kroll: I mean, one thing I started to struggle with in the book, and I feel like I got lost in the contemporaneous coverage of the story, people are making accusations all the time related to Seth Rich and I was always having the sense of, do you understand how serious the thing you're saying actually is? Do you realize the gravity of what you are accusing someone of doing or claiming had happened?

Yes, Eric Bolling, people forget the Bolling comment because it happened so early and because the later Fox News involvement in the Rich story which is so much more of a scandal, so much more of a bluff but yes, during the 2016 campaign a Fox News host was saying this was a hit, that there was a political crime, the murder of a democratic staffer in the middle of campaign for some related crime or some attempt on the part of this guy, Seth Rich. You know, I think people forget about it but Fox had been all over this almost from the beginning.

Chris Hayes: It also becomes this incredibly useful political tool for the right and Trump and everyone around Trump because almost immediately after the leaks, it's pretty clear the Russians were behind this, and it makes it looked bad if like the Russians have committed criminal sabotage on behalf of Donald Trump to get him elected which is almost immediately what Hillary Clinton starts saying. This then offers this alternate theory, "No, no, no, it's not the Russians" that basically the story is Seth Rich was a whistleblower, copied all the stuff, not unlike Chelsea Manning who had been ultimately a source for Wikileaks because Seth Rich wanted this public, leaked it through some channel of Wikileaks and was whacked, either to stop him from doing it or retribution.

That becomes a story and as ludicrous story as it is, it's the story that you can offer as a counterpoint to like, "It was the Russians, no, no, no." I mean that becomes, right, the kind of central narrative role it starts playing.

Andy Kroll: And you see everyone from Roger Stone eventually Steve Bannon, all these figures in the Trump orbits, some of them like directly connected to the Trump campaign like Stone was pointing to this interview by Assange and pointing to this newly emerged conspiracy theory that, "Nope, wasn't the Russians. The Russian story is a hoax, it's a lie." And here is the perfect way out of that story.

Chris Hayes: Right.

Andy Kroll: The perfect counter to the Russian story and "Oh, look, the guy can't even defend himself because he's dead." And you know, there's a metastory here to about conspiracy theories. It kind of ties into what we're saying the second ago about how anyone whose lived in a major city, who certainly worked as cop or detective in a major city would see the details of Seth's murder and say that totally adds up, that happens in big cities all the time, nothing suspicious surprising about that at all unfortunately.

Same thing happens here when Seth becomes this political pawn for the Trump campaign and Trump's supporters. Seth was not an IT employee. He had no access to anyone else's e-mails. He didn't have the technological know-how to get into his own e-mail when he forgot his password and got locked out of it and in fact, I talked to lots of people who said he was more likely to get shut out of his own iPhone than he was to carry out some sophisticated cyberattack. There's just a level of technological skill to pull off something like this, not to mention directly under the nose of your own employer. It just doesn't make sense but, yeah.

Chris Hayes: The story falls apart at the slightest little push. Like, it's ludicrous. It's ludicrous and again, it's totally like the kind of weird warm sensation of like the fire of pattern connection that lights up in your mind is more powerful for people than the kind of less exciting and boring truth which is like the guy was not particularly technically adopted and there's no universe where he could have pulled this off for starters, not to mention that there's literally no evidence. I mean that's the other thing, right?

Andy Kroll: Right.

Chris Hayes: There's zero evidence. This is the other thing, I think, that keeps coming back because you see this really comes up in a big lie, right? There is no evidence for it. It is backed out because it is narratively appealing and then backfield by people who are sort of reasoning from that direction. But it's literally baseless from the jump.

Andy Kroll: But there's some part of the human brain that lights up, the lesser part, the emotional part, you know, the part where our fear and our anger and that trivial part of the brain, that lights up when they see something like this because this knocks out that other thing, in this case the Russian story, that we don't like, that we think it's bad for our guy, bad for our team. It's incredible to just watch over and over again with the Seth Rich story with Pizzagate, QAnon, the "Big Lie," how powerful that lizard brain is over the part of the brain that says, "OK, just stop a second, how could any of this have happened?" There's no evidence for it and it's so impossible as to defy reality in all ways and yet millions of people still believe this stuff.

(ADVERTISEMENT)

Chris Hayes: In terms of why millions still believe this, so there's the Assange drama and then there's the internet and then there's Fox. Let's talk a little bit about what happens to the story in the group of Fox because I have to say I knew a little bit about it reading your book and being reacquainted with it. It is appalling and shocking and I say this is someone who hosts a cable news show, a host of cable news show that has a very clear, like point of view, like I have my politics, my commitments and my principles. People know that going in. We cover things from my perspective and point of view and there are ways that you could tell the same story with different framing. But what happens here is just like way outside the bounds of that, I think. What happens here with the Seth Rich story and Fox?

Andy Kroll: Without like going into the every single gore detail because there are a lot of them and they are documented meticulously in the book, what happens is there's a report of Fox who believes that she has the story showing, proving that Seth Rich was what all these Trump people believe him to be. This whistleblower or leaker who gave Wikileaks the DNC e-mails, not Russia despite a bunch of cybersecurity experts saying so, despite the U.S. Intelligence Community saying so, eventually multiple congressional parts and on and on.

What I found in all these e-mails and text messages and huge RIMs of documentation that I gathered for the book was the Fox reporter working with a Fox talking head basically under no supervision, littler oversight as best as I can tell in the years I've spent reporting this, the thousands of pages of documents, starting with the outcome of the story and working backwards to try to prove it. Starting with this tantalizing and really history-making thesis that Seth Rich was the source not Russia and then trying to go about proving that it was true which is of course not how journalist works, not even remotely close to how a journalist works.

There is a point a few days before this story I'm talking about for Fox News comes out when the reporter on the story, the author of it e-mails these people she's been working with, Fox talking head, a private investigator who's supposed to be working for the Rich family but was really helping put the Fox News story together, another insane twist of this. She e-mails him and she says, "Can you ask your sources the following questions?"

And in that list of questions is basically saying, "Is this true? How do you know that this is true?" Basically saying, "I don't have the goods to back this up. I'm asking you. Do you have the goods to back this up?" And eventually, the story comes to me, and it runs on Fox's website on May 16, 2017 particularly crazy period with the tumult at the FBI, Jim Comey is on his way out. Michael Flynn has already resigned after getting caught lying. It's just all the crazy stuff that's happening in the Trump White House and this story comes out like mana from heaven.

Chris Hayes: And it's like we have broken the case and there is some source, and the source is inside the DC Police Department, right?

Andy Kroll: It's not even that detailed. It is a law enforcement source who has read an FBI report that says Seth was the source and as best as we all know, there is no evidence that any of that exists. No report has ever surfaced. No law enforcement source has ever come forward. This story publishes again on May 16, 2017, for a few minutes there, few hours, it looks like the most ideal piece of exculpatory journalism for the Trump White House. Look at this, "It wasn't Russia. The Russia story is nonsense. Isn't this amazing." And then almost immediately the story starts to fall apart.

Chris Hayes: But that does not stop Fox News from doing a lot of Seth Rich coverage. I mean, so, you got that specific journalistic scene there which is they basically essentially like bootstrap a story out of nothing and it turns out to just be not true. Did they ever retract it?

Andy Kroll: They did retract the entire thing.

Chris Hayes: Yeah. So, they retracted the entire thing. But Hannity in particular and others are doing Seth Rich stories on their primetime program and again, you don't even need that reporting to do just asking questions. You can do reporting on Seth Rich night in and night out on your show but never crosses a factual line, right? Like, "This guy works for DNC, he was murdered, Julian Assange who would be in place to know…" I mean like there are ways to do it but it feels like they go out even and over and above that partly because they're writing this story.

Andy Kroll: The thing about this episode that really struck me and that I thought, you know, that I really tried to capture in the book to tell the story across a couple of chapters. I really zoomed in on it because it is this climactic moment in a year's long story. What struck me at the time, what stays with me even today is this glimpse inside Fox's workings, how the place operates. That you just don't get because Fox can be such a fortress because the place just does not open its doors and let people see how the sausage gets made but because of lawsuits after the fact all of these documents that came out.

We see this with the Seth Rich case and you have Fox on the one hand recognizing, realizing that this bombshell story that published, that had gone viral, that was on Drudge that was getting written up in every news outlet you could imagine because the story, if true, not only rewrote the story of the 2016 campaign…

Chris Hayes: It's the biggest scoop in years, yeah.

Andy Kroll: Yeah.

Chris Hayes: Like, if it's true, it's like an -- yes, a seismic water-gate level scoop.

Andy Kroll: Right, and think about all of the institutions and people that are now being accused of being part of coverup at that point because they had said that it was Russia, the CIA, the FBI, CrowdStrike, the Clinton campaign, the DNC, I mean the list goes on. This is an earth-shaking story and when it starts to crumble, you have one side of Fox trying to figure out, "Wait a minute, what happened? Who's the source on this? Where did this come from? You have to tell us everything." And then you have Sean Hannity at the same time on his radio show, on twitter and on his primetime Fox news show pushing this finding as much as he possibly can knowing that he got this, the ultimate piece of exculpatory evidence for Donald Trump whose Sean Hannity is talking to on the phone every night if the reporting at the time is to be believed.

Chris Hayes: And so, they get sued over this?

Andy Kroll: The story is retracted, the big bombshell story. About a week after it comes out, Fox puts a sort of mealy-mouth statement there saying, "It didn't meet our initial standards. We're going to continue to investigate." Whether they're going to investigate the story or investigate what they did wrong, they left open to interpretation. That's how vague this was. And eventually, Seth Rich's parents, Joel and Mary Rich, his older brother Aaron Rich get to a place, you know, some months after this whole Fox fiasco where no one has apologized to them at Fox.

No one has given any real explanation for what went wrong trying to correct the record because once Fox blasts something into the world, you can't put that genie back in the bottle. Your Google search results are forever altered, forever skewed, because Fox took up a story. Eventually, they realized, you know, no one is coming to save us and nothing that we try, nothing that we say, no amount of interviews that we, speaking of the Rich family, that we give are going to correct the record. The court of public opinion will not be changed and there's nothing we can do about it.

And so they decided, Joel and Mary, Seth's parents that they're going to sue Fox News because they feel like the record must be set straight. Seth's name must be cleared, and that the truth is worth defending.

Chris Hayes: What is the outcome of that?

Andy Kroll: The case goes on for a couple of years, many twists and turns. It's dismissed at one point then reinstated on appeal and when it's reinstated on appeal, it's sent back to the Southern District of New York. There is a moment when their lawyers filed this motion in court saying here are all the people, we intent to depose at Fox News. Sean Hannity is on the list; Lou Dobbs; Jay Wallace, the high up executives; Suzanne Scott who would go and be, you know, Roger Ailes' successor at the top of Fox News.

And this is the A list of Fox News stars. Not long afterward, Fox decided it is not going to take this case to trial. It is not going to let Sean Hannity be put under oath and talk about this hugely embarrassing controversy. The case eventually settles around Thanksgiving 2020 just a little ways after the election and very much intentionally after the election, Fox News in the settlement negotiations reportedly insisted on this not coming out until after the 2020 election. There was a seven-figure financial payment to the Riches which has been reported.

But there is also a sense that a line has been drawn in the sand. There was a deterrent as a result of this settlement. You won't hear Fox News talking about Seth Rich, writing about Seth Rich because they have been through this and they know how this went the first time and they are certainly not going to go through it again.

Chris Hayes: Yeah, there's the irony of course that they're facing lawsuits around the "Big Lie" which is the kind of the 2020 version of Seth Rich in 2016 is the voting machines were hacked by the ghost of Hugo Chaves and the Italian intelligence using satellites. Let's focus for this last part about the Rich family. I mean part of what also is true here is when you see this in much more than all circumstances like someone's dating profile get caught in a drafted virality and all of the sudden, like this random person who just posted this paragraph that's like maybe cringe-inducing or maybe a little jerky or whatever is like just the subject of this barrage of internet hatred or mockery or just attention and it's overwhelming.

And at the center of it all is they're actual human beings caught in the insane vortex of our attention economy and in this case, it's a family that had just unbelievably depth of traumatic loss. What is the human part of this look like for the Rich family?

Andy Kroll: Chris, did you read the, really excellent Atlantic story that Jen Senior wrote about 9/11 and the family trying to gravel with that.

Chris Hayes: Yes.

Andy Kroll: So, there is a line in there. It was a fantastic story, won the Pulitzer Prize.

Chris Hayes: Yeah, one all sorts of words, yes.

Andy Kroll: Right, so there's a line in there in which Bobby Mcllvaine, the young man who died in 9/11; his mom, I believe it is, is talking about being in grief counselling and how the counsellor described to her one time that, you know, grief was like being stranded on the top of a mountain and you know, like your leg is broken and you're exhausted but you have to find your way down on your own. And everyone's path down the mountain is different. That's what grieving is.

Not long after I read that article, I went on to Omaha for some interviews with Joel and Mary Rich. I read that line back to them and I asked them, "You know, this one is like for you guys. Is this how it's felt?" Joel said to me, "You know, Andy, kind of but it's almost like we're on a mountain that no one has ever been on before or you have a path down that no one has ever tried before, no one has ever experienced. Because not only was our youngest son killed and we don't know who did it to this day, but then all of this nonsense happens afterward, that very few people have ever gone through in a way that we have."

I mean, really, it's like the parents of the children killed in Sandy Hook and that's kind of it in this internet era. Mary has described the conspiracy theories especially the Fox part of all this, Fox's role as in some ways, feeling like Seth was killed again even though he was dead, he had been re-murdered because this time it was his soul that was taken, not his body, his person, his life but something more essential. I mean there's a reason the epigraph in the book is a passage from a fellow about how our names is the most essential thing we own. Because that's what it felt like was being taken.

So, it was this indescribable thing for Joel and Mary and for Aaron, Seth's older brother, but also, you know, Act III of the book is the Rich family taking action. The Rich family despite everything they've gone through deciding that they weren't just going to go hide in Omaha. They weren't just going to hope this went away eventually with time in some way, that they had to take matters into their own hands.

This is another one of these things, the magnitude of this resonates with people. This is a family that is not political. They are not plugged in into the beltway. They're not media figures. They are the most unassuming lovely, gentle, apolitical people you might find suing Fox News.

Chris Hayes: Right.

Andy Kroll: One of the most powerful media organizations in the world but that is what they felt they had to do to, again, correct the record, to remind people who Seth actually was versus what all of these political actors, news anchors claimed that he was.

Chris Hayes: Yeah, and part of what's so gross about what's done to Seth Rich particularly by Julian Assange as a starting point is, here's a person who is by all accounts had gone whole and loyal DNC person who then is going to work for Clinton campaign who sort of like posthumously claimed by these series of factions as one of their own and as a useful cordial against opposing factions, the faction that he was actually part of and devoted his career to. Like, he was a DNC Clinton guy. That that's what he was and that part of his identity, his belief system, his worldview, what he believed and was doing, stolen out from under his memory.

So, as to accuse the people that worked for and believed in of the most heinous possible crime, it's a very, very specifically sick and twisted thing to do to someone's legacy.

Andy Kroll: It's the reason I focused on it on this story more than anyone of the other firewall conspiracy theories or huge political flashpoints because the details of it, the life that he lived versus what was said about him, the way his life and his death were twisted into something totally unrecognizable, could not be more a contrast to each other, could not be more different. You could not have picked a young man who believed what he believed and turned him into what Julian Assange, Roger Stone, Fox News, you name it. At what they turned him into, it's just absolutely antithetical to who this person actually was.

I mean that's the reason why I wanted to write the book. I wanted in some small way to not just remind people who Seth was but to reclaim who he was, to play at least a part in reclaiming who he was. When I talked to Seth's really good friends, I spent some time with them out in Omaha, his friends from high school, his friends Creighton, great group of guys, you know, felt like I could have been part of that group in other way in which Seth and I kind of felt like contemporaries. This was the thing that irritated them the most. They just wanted to grab some of these conspiracy theorists by the shirt and say to them, "everything you're claiming about Seth is the exact opposite of what he stood for."

Chris Hayes: Right.

Andy Kroll: Everything that you are pinning on him, that you are making him an emblem of is antithetical to actually what he believed, what he wanted to do in his life, how he wanted to leave his mark on the world. You know, I hope that that comes through in the book. I hope people feel that because I think that that was something I really set out to do with this book.

Chris Hayes: It really does. It's a great read. It's so well told and so well reported and the details, again, I mean just the back and forth about how that actual Fox situation happens is of an incredibly revealing look at how that place operates, the book is called "A Death on W. Street: The murder of Seth Rich and the Age of Conspiracy." It's by my guest, Andy Kroll, who is also a reporter at ProPublica. Andy, thank you so much for joining us.

Andy Kroll: I really enjoyed it, Chris. Thanks for having me.

Chris Hayes: Once again, great thanks to Andy Kroll. It really is a wild, wild, enraging, fascinating, heart-breaking tale and I definitely recommend if you like that conversation, pick me up the book because there's a lot more in the book than just what we got to talk about. Also, send us your feedback. Tweet us with the #WITHpod, e-mail withpod@gmail.com and be sure to follow us on TikTok by searching for WITHpod.

Tweet us with the hashtag #WITHpod, email WITHpod@gmail.com. Follow us on TikTok by searching for WITHpod. “Why Is This Happening?” is presented by MSNBC and NBC News, produced by Doni Holloway and Brendan O'Melia, engineered by Bob Mallory and features music by Eddie Cooper. You can see more of our work, including links to things we mentioned here, by going to nbcnews.com/whyisthishappening.