The White House worked with Fox News and a wealthy Republican donor to concoct a story about the murder of Democratic National Committee staffer Seth Rich, according to an explosive lawsuit filed Tuesday.
The story, the lawsuit said, was part of an attempt to discredit the US intelligence community’s determination that Russia hacked the Democratic National Committee and obtained a trove of emails released by Wikileaks.
For months, right-wing conspiracy theorists had floated unproven theories that Rich was the person who provided Wikileaks with the DNC emails, and suggested his death was retribution for his supposed leak. No real evidence was ever provided to support such claims. The theory, however, resurfaced in May when Fox News published a story that quoted Rod Wheeler, a Fox News contributor and former homicide detective hired to investigate Rich’s death, saying there was in fact evidence showing Rich had been in contact with Wikileaks. The story quickly fell apart when Wheeler contradicted aspects of it in an interview with CNN. Fox News eventually deleted it from its website, saying in a note left in its place that it failed to meet the network’s editorial standards.
Now Wheeler, in his lawsuit, is coming forward with what he claims is the backstory: Fox News reporter Malia Zimmerman, with the “knowledge and support” of wealthy Republican donor Ed Butowsky, fabricated a pair of quotes attributed to Wheeler. It was all part of an effort to distract from the Russia narrative, the lawsuit said.
“Zimmerman, Butowsky and Fox had created fake news to advance President Trump’s agenda,” said the lawsuit, which named 21st Century Fox, the Fox News Channel, Zimmerman, and Butowsky as defendants. “Mr. Wheeler was subsequently forced to correct the false record and, as a result, lost all credibility in the eyes of the public. Mr. Wheeler has suffered irreparable damage to his reputation and his career will likely never recover.”
Moreover, the lawsuit said, the White House was aware of the Fox News story ahead of publication.
According to the lawsuit, then-White House press secretary Sean Spicer met with Butowsky and Wheeler, was provided Wheeler’s investigative notes, and “asked to be kept abreast of developments” with the case.
“Ed is [a] longtime supporter of the president’s agenda who often appears in the media,” Spicer said in an email to CNN. “He asked for a 10 minute meeting, with no specified topic, to catch up and said he would be bringing along a contributor to Fox News. As Ed himself has noted, he has never met the President and the White House had nothing to do with his story.” Asked by CNN for confirmation that Rich had been discussed during that meeting, Spicer responded, “They told me they were working on a story about him and wanted me to be aware of it — that was it.”
Perhaps even more stunning was a text message from Butowsky to Wheeler included in the lawsuit. In it, Butowsky wrote, “Not to add any more pressure but the president just read the article. He wants the article out immediately. It’s now all up to you. But don’t feel the pressure.”
Butowsky told CNN that “the lawsuit is bulls**t” and said “Wigdor pulled this out of his butt to make money.” He said this message was a joke referring to what he said was Wheeler’s desire for a job with the Trump administration.
“This was Rod and I,” Butowsky said. “We teased all the time. We were basically telling him you are doing a great job and that the president or the White House or somebody would be interested in meeting you.”
Also included in the lawsuit is a description of an email that it said Butowsky sent regarding Zimmerman’s story to “various Fox News producers and on air talent,” including the co-hosts of the network’s morning show, “Fox & Friends.” As quoted by the lawsuit, the email read, in part, “One of the big conclusions we need to draw from this is that the Russians did not hack our computer systems and ste[a]l emails and there was no collusion like trump with the Russians.”
The lawsuit offered no proof that the producers or hosts saw or acted upon this email. But the next morning, “Fox & Friends” did echo parts of this message.
Jay Wallace, Fox News’ president of news, said in a statement provided to CNN that the “accusation that FoxNews.com published Malia Zimmerman’s story to help detract from coverage of the Russia collusion issue is completely erroneous.”
“The retraction of this story is still being investigated internally and we have no evidence that Rod Wheeler was misquoted by Zimmerman,” Wallace added.
Fox retracted the story more than two months ago.
Wheeler declined to comment to CNN, saying he could not “disclose more details” than what was already available in his lawsuit.
In a statement provided by their spokesperson, the Rich family said, “While we can’t speak to the evidence that you now have, we are hopeful this brings an end to what has been the most emotionally difficult time in our lives, and an end to conspiracy theories surrounding our beloved Seth.”