Alternative fact of the Week: Conspiracy theorists go nuts on a murder victim

Alternative facts come in all shapes and sizes. Sometimes, they are relatively benign, as when President Donald Trump insisted his inauguration drew record crowds when photographs show that no, it didn't. At other times, they are a cynical attempt to affect policy, such as the gross exaggeration, "Obamacare is in a death spiral" when no, it isn't. But there is something truly despicable about using the murder of a 27-year-old to spin some grand conspiracy theory about email in order to cast doubt on Russian interference in the last election.

Until this week, most Americans probably never heard of Seth Rich. He was killed near his home in Washington, D.C. last summer in what police have described as a botched robbery. He also worked on voter access projects for the Democratic National Committee. WikiLeaks published tens of thousands of emails from the DNC not long after he was killed. Conspiracy theorists have sought to tie the two events together, and their efforts were reinforced earlier this month by a private investigator who claimed to have supporting evidence (from an alleged FBI analysis of Rich's computer) but then recanted. But that didn't stop former House Speaker Newt Gingrich from embracing the threadbare theory as fact.

"We have this very strange story now of this young man who worked for the Democratic National Committee, who apparently was assassinated at 4 in the morning, having given WikiLeaks something like 53,000 emails and 17,000 attachments," he said on Fox News. "Nobody's investigating that, and what does that tell you about what was going on? Because it turns out, it wasn't the Russians."

That claim gained considerable air time on Fox (and especially with Sean Hannity, the network's leading Trump apologist) until Fox's own website retracted the story as unsubstantiated. And the deliberate effort to spread misinformation is particularly obnoxious because it casts a murder victim who can't defend himself in a negative light, much to the chagrin of his grieving family. And, of course, there's the matter of it not being the least bit true — as recently as this week, former Central Intelligence Agency Director John Brennan, testifying under oath to the House Intelligence Committee, reminded everyone that there was not only plenty of evidence of Russian hacking and manipulation of the election but considerable evidence that the Russians had attempted to suborn Mr. Trump's associates to act on their behalf as well.

So, here's a question: Should Americans believe the tin-foil-hat conspiracy theory that is supported by nothing more than timing that is almost certainly coincidental or by the testimony of its intelligence community including experts like Mr. Brennan who spent a quarter-century at the CIA? Even Mr. Trump's most hardcore supporters may be having trouble swallowing this one. Companies from Cars.com to Crowne Plaza Hotels pulled ads from Mr. Hannity's show this week for fear of being associated with the despicable manipulation.

Elaborate conspiracy theories can be as tough to stamp out as cockroaches, but this one borders on the nonsensical. The leaked DNC emails weren't by themselves all that scandalous (even in a mystery novel there has to be sufficient motivation for murder). Mr. Rich was no disgruntled employee, and dumping large amounts of political information has become a signature Russian move, repeated in the recent French election against Emmanuel Macron. That Mr. Gingrich would happily defend Russian propagandists and dismiss his own country's defense establishment demonstrates how roiled national politics have become under President Trump.

If President Trump wants to restore his standing with the American electorate (his latest job approval rating is at 39 percent, according to Gallup), he ought to denounce the efforts to turn a young man's death into a fictionalized political sideshow. Of course, he might also respect the ongoing investigation into Russian meddling in the last election and the possible ties to those who worked on his campaign instead of trying to interfere with or derail the inquiry altogether. Either would bring a measure of honor to the White House; neither seems likely.

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