An investigator who worked on the case of the slaying of a young Democratic National Committee aide claims Fox News fabricated quotes implicating Seth Rich in the WikiLeaks scandal and that President Donald Trump pressured Fox to publish the story.
The investigator, Rod Wheeler, sued Fox for defamation on Tuesday in New York. Later on Tuesday, Fox News and the White House denied the claims in the lawsuit.
Rod Wheeler, who was hired by Rich’s family to look into his death, was quoted in Malia Zimmerman’s May 16 FoxNews.com article about Rich’s death that the network later retracted, The New York Times reports. Wheeler states that the network was aware that the statements were not said by him yet “published the statements with reckless disregard for their truth.”
The lawsuit tells an explosive story of Trump allies conspiring to push a false story to take the pressure of the Russian collusion investigation off the president, and a news organization willing to work with Trump and show him their story before it was published.
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Former White House communications director Sean Spicer has admitted meeting with a Republican donor who shopped the story, despite telling reporters that he was unaware of the story when Fox News ran several segments about it, the Washington Post reports.
On April 20, Wheeler and Ed Butowsky, a Texas man and Trump supporter who appeared frequently on Fox, got a meeting with Spicer and handed over Wheeler’s notes on the Rich story, according to the lawsuit filed by Wheeler.
“Mr. Spicer was provided with a copy of Mr. Wheeler’s investigative narrative and asked Butowsky and Mr. Wheeler to keep him abreast of any developments in the case,” Wheeler’s attorneys write in the lawsuit. “Upon information and belief, Butowsky did just that.”
Spicer confirmed the meeting in an interview with Folkenflik, the Post reports. “It had nothing to do with advancing the president’s domestic agenda — and there was no agenda,” Spicer later said. “They were just informing me of the (Fox) story.”
But less than one month later, in a May 16 press event, Spicer claimed to have no knowledge of the Rich story.
In Tuesday’s White House press conference, press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders responded to the lawsuit.
“The president had no knowledge of this story, and it’s completely untrue that he or the White House (had) involvement in the story,” Sanders said. “And beyond that, this is ongoing litigation, and I’d refer you to the actual parties involved, which aren’t the White House.”
And, regarding the meeting with Spicer:
“It doesn't bother me that the press secretary would take a meeting with somebody involved in the media about a story,” Sanders said. “That was disclosed. They had a conversation. that was the end of it.”
Fox News Channel’s president of news, Jay Wallace, also responded to the lawsuit in a statement sent to The Kansas City Star on Tuesday:
“The accusation that FoxNews.com published Malia Zimmerman’s story to help detract from coverage of the Russia collusion issue is completely erroneous,” Wallace said. “The retraction of this story is still being investigated internally and we have no evidence that Rod Wheeler was misquoted by Zimmerman. Additionally, FOX News vehemently denies the race discrimination claims in the lawsuit — the dispute between Zimmerman and Rod Wheeler has nothing to do with race.”
The White House did not have an immediate comment on Tuesday.
Wheeler, a Fox contributor, was brought into the case by Ed Butowsky, a Texas man and Trump supporter who appeared frequently on Fox, the lawsuit said. Butowsky was intent on establishing a link between Rich, who was killed in July 2016 in what Washington police believe was a botched robbery, and the WikiLeaks scandal.
The retracted Fox article, citing law enforcement sources, said Rich had shared thousands of DNC emails with WikiLeaks — a theory that would undercut the assertions that Russia had interfered in the election on behalf of Trump, The Times reports. WikiLeaks’ dump of DNC emails proved a major detriment to Hillary Clinton’s campaign.
Wheeler also said he was quoted falsely as saying that someone – possibly Democrats or Clinton campaign officials – was blocking an investigation into Rich’s murder.
Two days before the Fox article was published, Butowsky told Wheeler in a phone conversation that Trump had read the article and wanted it published immediately, the lawsuit said.
Wheeler also claimed that he was told that his false comments were put in the story because Trump wanted it that way.
Fox removed the story from its website a week after it was published, saying that “it was not initially subjected to the high degree of editorial scrutiny we require for all of our reporting.” That forced Fox News’ most high-profile host, Sean Hannity, to back away from aggressively pushing the story on the air.
Wheeler, who is black and has been a Fox contributor since 2005, is also suing Fox for racial discrimination. He said similar law enforcement experts who are white were given higher pay and more opportunities.
The Washington Post has published a useful timeline of events in the complicated case.
The Associated Press contributed to this report.