WASHINGTON — For the last four and a half years, Aaron Rich has lived in a nightmare. His younger brother, Seth Rich, who worked for the Democratic National Committee, was murdered on July 10, 2016, in a crime that remains unsolved. Aaron then watched as anonymous online trolls, pro-Trump blowhards, and TV talking heads amplified a baseless, politically motivated theory that Seth, not Russia, had given internal DNC emails to WikiLeaks in 2016.
This theory has been roundly discredited by investigations led by cybersecurity experts, the Trump-era Justice Department, and two Republican-led congressional investigations into Russian interference in the 2016 election. A grand jury indicted 12 Russian intelligence agents for the cyberattacks on the DNC and Hillary Clinton’s 2016 campaign as part of Special Counsel Robert Mueller’s inquiry. And the Special Counsel’s final report says WikiLeaks and its founder, Julian Assange, made statements “designed to obscure” the source of the DNC leaks and of having “implied falsely” that Rich was his source.
But when Aaron Rich tried to debunk the smears about Seth and clear his late brother’s name, he found himself sucked into the swirling vortex of conspiracy theories. He was accused — without a shred of evidence — of helping Seth steal the DNC emails, of getting paid for leaking those emails, of impeding the criminal investigation into his brother’s death, and of even knowing about his brother’s murder before it happened and doing nothing to stop it.
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He received death threats. He bought security equipment for his home. He sought out psychological treatment to deal with the stress and anxiety of being the target of unfounded conspiracy theories. He withdrew from social media entirely, for fear that any picture he posted or message he shared would somehow be twisted and used against him. Finally, after his pleas with some of the loudest proponents of these theories — a former Fox News guest named Ed Butowsky and a pro-Trump blogger and self-proclaimed “investigator” named Matt Couch — went unheeded, Aaron decided his best hope for justice was not in the court of public opinion but in a court of law.
In March 2018, Rich sued Butowsky and Couch in D.C. federal court for defamation. (He also sued the Washington Times newspaper for an op-ed that made similar claims about him; the Times swiftly retracted the op-ed and apologized.) Aaron’s suit would put to the test whether victims of viral conspiracy theories could use the judicial system to fight those theories and correct the record. Now, almost three years later, he has an answer.
On Thursday, Ed Butowsky and Matt Couch announced that they were retracting all claims they had made about Aaron related to WikiLeaks and the 2016 DNC hack. “I never had physical proof to back up any such statements or suggestions, which I now acknowledge I should not have made,” Butowsky said in a statement. He went on to retract and apologize for “any statement I have made asserting or implying that Aaron Rich downloaded or transferred DNC emails to WikiLeaks or received payment in exchange. I take full responsibility for my comments and I apologize for any pain I have caused.”
In a video and a written statement, Matt Couch — who currently has almost half a million Twitter followers and was retweeted several times by President Trump before Twitter permanently suspended the @realdonaldtrump account — said his “reports” about Aaron Rich “were largely driven by information given to us by a single source who we now believe provided us with false information and who as of this date has retracted his statements.” (Couch has said in a court filing that “all information” he published about Aaron Rich and WikiLeaks came from Ed Butowsky.) Couch said he apologized to Aaron and the Rich family, adding that all references to Aaron “have been removed from our websites and social media platforms to the best of our abilities.”
The retractions and apologies published by Butowsky and Couch on Thursday do not give any indication that either man has backed away from the discredited theory that Seth Rich had any part in the DNC hack-and-leak cyber-attack during the 2016 presidential campaign.
Aaron Rich said in a statement on Thursday that he was “gratified” Butowsky and Couch took responsibility for what they’d done to him. “In the more than four years since we lost Seth, the accusations made against our family have only served to prolong our grief without bringing us any closer to finding Seth’s murderer,” Rich said. “Although we will never be at peace until we obtain justice for Seth’s murder, I hope that these events may encourage others to pause and consider the impact of accusing strangers of wrongdoing, give law enforcement space to do their jobs, and let us remember Seth in peace and with privacy.”
As Aaron’s complaint lays out, he first noticed that Butowsky, Couch, and others were targeting him with outlandish and unproven claims in the summer of 2017. Couch began to publish personal information about Aaron, including the fact that he needed a security clearance to do his job. From there, court records show, Couch posted dozens of tweets and multiple livestream videos in which he made a series of extreme claims about Aaron. According to court records, Couch continued to escalate his claims about the Rich family through the fall of 2017. Here’s what he said during a September 2017 livestream video, court records indicate:
“I don’t have any remorse at this point for the family. And let me tell you why: Because the family, the Seth Rich family has had every opportunity in the world to come forward. They are involved. They are 100% involved in this cover up. Joel and Mary Rich, Aaron Rich was involved in the leaks with Seth Rich…This is a massive cover-up of epic proportions. It’s on the level of a JFK cover-up. We know that Seth and Aaron did the leak. We know that Aaron Rich took money from WikiLeaks…”
There was no factual basis for any of these claims, Aaron stated in court. He had nothing to do with the DNC hack; never accepted money from WikiLeaks; and had no inkling whatsoever his younger brother, who was the best man in Aaron’s wedding, would be shot and killed. He explained in his complaint that he had spent “countless hours” helping state and federal law enforcement officials investigate Seth’s murder, including giving those officials access to “all of Seth’s property” and testifying under oath as a witness before a grand jury convened to investigate the murder.
Couch, a diehard Trump supporter, seemed to suggest in one of his livestream videos that his fixation on unproven theories about Seth and Aaron Rich were intended to undercut the reporting and intelligence assessments about Russia’s interference in U.S. elections, according to Aaron’s complaint. As Couch bluntly put it, “We turned up the heat on Seth Rich and all of the sudden the Russian story dies.”
And Couch wasn’t shy, court records show, to identify one of his key sources for all of these claims: Ed Butowsky. “A huge thanks to Ed Butowsky, who I guess at this point, I mean, hell, it’s out, Ed joined my Periscope, yeah, he’s one of my sources, America.”
As for Butowsky, this was not the first time he had been sued in connection with the baseless theories about Seth Rich. In 2018, Joel and Mary Rich sued him, Fox News, and a FoxNews.com reporter, alleging intentional infliction of emotional distress after Fox had published — and then retracted — a story claiming Seth had provided tens of thousands of DNC emails to WikiLeaks. According to evidence entered into court in that case, Butowsky, who made more than 200 appearances on Fox News and Fox Business between 2009 and 2017, helped Fox News assemble that story and then, on the eve of its publication, took credit for it, writing to a group of Fox News employees: “I’m actually the one who’s been putting this together but as you know I keep my name out of things because I have no credibility.”
Joel and Mary Rich’s lawsuit against Fox, the Fox reporter, and Butowsky was initially dismissed in federal district court but was reinstated by the Second Circuit Court of Appeals, which wrote in its decision, “We have no trouble concluding that — taking their allegations as true — the Riches plausibly alleged what amounted to a campaign of emotional torture.” In November, Joel and Mary Rich settled their lawsuit after reaching an undisclosed settlement. Yahoo News, citing unnamed “legal sources,” reported that the settlement included a seven-figure payment.
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