A lawsuit filed Tuesday alleges that Fox News Channel, a wealthy Republican Party donor, and the White House collaborated on the creation of a story about slain Democratic National Committee staffer Seth Rich that quickly fell apart after it was published in late May. The suit even claims that President Trump reviewed the story before its release and wanted it published “immediately.”
The suit, which was first reported by NPR News, comes from Rod Wheeler, a private investigator and occasional Fox News commentator, who was quoted extensively in the May story as saying there was evidence that Rich, who was killed outside his Bloomingdale home in July 2017, had been in communication with Wikileaks, which last summer published volumes of internal DNC correspondence. The Fox News report, a version of which was also shown by local Fox station WTTG, appeared to confirm a popular right-wing theory that Rich had been Wikileaks’s source, despite conclusions from US intelligence agencies that the DNC had been hacked by agents of the Russian government.
The story was quickly denounced and disproven by multiple law-enforcement agencies, including DC’s Metropolitan Police Department, which is investigating Rich’s death as the result of a botched armed robbery. But it gave fuel to conspiracy theorists who continued to stoke an unfounded narrative, including Fox News host Sean Hannity, who made conspiracies about Rich the focus of his prime-time show for several days. The story itself was formally retracted a week after it first appeared.
Wheeler’s suit is targeted at Ed Butowsky, a Dallas financial adviser and GOP donor, and Malia Zimmerman, the author of the online version of Fox News’s story. In the complaint, which was filed in federal court in New York, Wheeler says Butowksy introduced himself in Februrary, and “offered to bankroll an investigation into Seth Rich’s murder.” The suit also claims Butowsky said he was working with Zimmerman on a Fox News investigative piece about the Rich case. But Wheeler now argues that Butowsky’s and Zimmerman’s motives were less-than-sincere.
“As it turned out, Butowsky and Zimmerman were not simply Good Samaritans attempting to solve a murder,” the complaint reads. “Rather, they were interested in advancing a political agenda for the Trump Administration. Specifically, it was their aim to have Mr. Wheeler confirm that: (i) Seth Rich was responsible for the leak of DNC emails to WikiLeaks; and (ii) Seth Rich was murdered by a Democrat operative because he leaked the emails to WikiLeaks.”
The goal, Wheeler’s suit argues, was to take the heat off allegations that the Trump campaign colluded with Russia. Moreover, Wheeler claims Butowsky repeatedly communicated about the progress of Zimmerman’s story with White House officials, including chief strategist Steve Bannon and then-press secretary Sean Spicer. Wheeler says in the complaint that he and Butowsky met with Spicer before Zimmerman’s story ran on May 16 to review Wheeler’s notes. Spicer confirmed to NPR that he met with Butowsky, but as a favor to a fellow Republican and reliable White House ally.
Wheeler now argues that Zimmerman’s story contained fabricated quotes attributed to him, despite his noticing them before publication and asking her to remove them. Zimmerman quoted Wheeler as saying, “My investigation up to this point shows there was some degree of email exchange between Seth Rich and Wikileaks,” a line which Wheeler—the story’s only named source—now denies.
According to Wheeler’s complaint, the President got involved on May 14 when he allegedly read a draft of Zimmerman’s story, including the disputed quotes, and wanted it published “immediately.” According to a text message Wheeler says he received from Butowsky, publishing Zimmerman’s report—which claimed existence of an FBI report about Rich and Wikileaks—would distract the public’s attention from Trump’s firing FBI Director James Comey about a week earlier. (The FBI also refuted the story, as Rich’s death falls under the MPD’s jurisdiction.)
Wheeler claims the night before Zimmerman’s story went live, Butowsky emailed Fox News talent like Fox & Friends hosts Steve Doocy, Ainsley Earhardt, and Brian Kilmeade about his role and objectives. “If you have any questions about the story or more information needed, call me at [number redacted],” the alleged email read. “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. 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.”
In a statement released by Fox News, Jay Wallace, the network’s president of news, says Wheeler’s claim that the story was crafted to lessen the public’s focus on accusations about the Russian government’s role in the 2016 election is wrong.
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. 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 respond to Washingtonian‘s requests for comment on Wheeler’s claims about its role in the publishing of Zimmerman’s story or the President’s alleged participation.
Wheeler is seeking damages to be determined at trial. Read his complaint below: