Donald Trump has shown he is hardly discerning when it comes to retweeting devotees who are on his side. He has RTed a video of a supporter shouting “white power!” He did the same with a video falsely linking Black Lives Matter to a 2019 crime in New York City. He retweeted an anti-Semitic Twitter user. As long as you’re with him, Trump doesn’t care who or what you are. On Tuesday, Trump did it again: he thrice put his stamp of approval on tweets from a known conspiracy theorist named Matt Couch who for years has pushed a discredited story.
Couch has been an advocate of the false claim that Seth Rich, a Democratic Party staffer murdered in an apparent botched robbery in Washington, DC, was the source of the stolen Democratic emails released by WikiLeaks during the 2016 election. This bizarre notion has been championed by conservatives and fringe players—and hinted at by Julian Assange—to show that Russia did not attack the 2016 election and that it was an inside job. Prominent pro-Trump conspiracy theorists Roger Stone and Jerome Corsi have echoed the baseless allegations about Rich. (Corsi later retracted and apologized for a story promoting the Rich conpsiracy theory.) As Michael Isikoff, my co-author on Russian Roulette, has reported, Couch went even further than other Seth Rich conspiracy theorists and maintained that Rich’s brother, Aaron, an IT specialist in Colorado, had plotted with Seth Rich to steal the DNC documents and sell them to WikiLeaks. (All this disinformation-pushing about Seth Rich has caused great anguish for his family.)
Of course, there is no evidence for these stories. Russian hackers pilfered the material, according to reports from the US intelligence community, Special Counsel Robert Mueller, and the Republican-led intelligence committees of the House and Senate. And Moscow dumped this material as part of an operation to help Trump win the presidency. One goal of the Seth Rich conspiracy theorists has been to remove the Russian stain from Trump’s 2016 victory—to show the Trump-Russia scandal was a hoax. But after promoting this bogus tale—repeatedly highlighted by host Sean Hannity—Fox News had to retract its story. In November, Fox settled a lawsuit brought by Rich’s parents, who had claimed that the conservative cable network had engaged in “extreme and outrageous” conduct regarding its coverage of their son’s death.
Couch, though, persisted. He hounded Rich’s brother and others who had known Rich. He demanded they turn over information and laptops to his independent investigators. In 2019, facing litigation from Aaron Rich, he told a federal judge he would remove all content from his websites relating to Aaron Rich and was “willing to issue an apology to Mr. Rich.” Afterward, Couch said that he would pursue a book deal and a video series on the Seth Rich case. (Aaron Rich’s lawsuit is still pending.)
These days—no shocker—Couch is one of those pro-Trumpers claiming the 2020 election was stolen from Trump. On Saturday, he appeared at a rally of Trump supporters in Washington, DC. He assailed the Justice Department, the US Senate, and various state legislatures as “corrupt” for their supposed role in the supposed plot against Trump. He referenced a famous Thomas Jefferson quote—”The tree of liberty must be refreshed from time to time with the blood of patriots and tyrants”—and called for the American public to “rise now” in this fight of “good versus evil.”
On Tuesday morning, Trump retweeted three tweets that Couch had sent out the previous night. Couch had been spreading conspiracy theories about the election, and he had offered advice to Trump: “The President needs to hold a press conference right after Biden speaks every single time and remind them he’s the rightful President and Winner!”
Apparently, Trump thought bird-dogging Biden this way was a good idea. He amplified this tweet and also shared Couch’s other tweets with his massive audience. Twitter placed a warning on these other two tweets, noting their claims about election fraud was “disputed.”
By now, there is not much surprising about Trump’s reckless crusade to subvert American democracy in order to overturn the election results so he can retain power. He has repeatedly lied. He has relied on lawyers and lieutenants who have peddled an assortment of fake and deceptive contentions. He has railed against reality-based Republican officials who have declared the election fair and sound. He even appears to have given Bill Barr the boot from the Justice Department after Barr, who has violated so many norms for Trump, declined to back up Trump’s claim that the election was fraudulent.
So who is Trump left with? People like Matt Couch and other leaders (if you can call him that) of the paranoid right. (Couch’s website sells a t-shirt with the logo “Cult 45,” and he explains, “Since Liberals want to call anyone who supports President Trump a Cult member, we’ll just embrace it and Trigger them even more!”) Trump’s relationship with these sorts is dangerous. Not because they are going to succeed in their mission to undo an election. It is because Trump is amplifying and legitimizing sources of profound disinformation. Couch has half a million Twitter followers. On Saturday night, he posted a video of him at Mount Vernon, the home of George Washington, discussing the “significance” of the Rich case On Monday, Couch tweeted, “Seth Rich Isn’t Going Away!!!” Now he has the cult leader’s imprimatur for his continued efforts to sling conspiracy swill.
Couch did not respond to requests for comment sent to his website and Twitter account.
In his narcissistic quest to hold on to the White House and deny his defeat, Trump is elevating conspiracy theorists and disinformation purveyors. This is adding to the poison he has been inserting into the national discourse for years. But Trump has little choice. After all, as he pushes a false and divisive narrative to serve his own political and psychological needs, his only allies are those who share his disregard for the truth.