A wealthy supporter of President Trump conspired with Fox News and the White House to push a dubiously sourced article about the death of a Democratic National Committee staffer in an attempt to deflect attention from the president’s possible connections to Russia, according to a lawsuit filed last Tuesday.
Rod Wheeler, a private investigator looking into the killing of the staffer, Seth Rich, claims that Fox News fabricated quotes it attributed to Wheeler in a story published online and aired on Fox & Friends. Wheeler’s suit claims Fox News defamed him by publicizing the false statements “with reckless disregard for their truth” and in a manner that destroyed his “reputation as an objective, credible and intelligent investigator with integrity.”
The lawsuit also alleges that Wheeler was used as a pawn in a larger plot by Republican donor and Trump supporter, Ed Butowsky; the White house; and reporters at Fox News to “shift the blame” for 2016 election interference onto the Democratic party and quash speculation that President Trump had any connection with Russian efforts to influence the results.
Wheeler, who is black, also alleges racial discrimination by Fox News. Wheeler, a former Washington D.C. homicide detective, has been a paid contributor for the network since 2005. He claims he did not receive as much airtime or compensation as his white counterparts.
The death that fueled a conspiracy theory
The series of events that led to the lawsuit began over a year ago.
Early in the morning on Sunday July 10, 2016, 27-year-old Seth Rich was talking to his girlfriend on the phone while walking home from a local bar. The couple had been speaking for over an hour when Rich ended the call. Then, gunshots rang out.
Police responded to the shots at 4:19 am. When they arrived at the scene, they found Rich alive but seriously injured, approximately a block from his home in Washington's Bloomingdale neighborhood. He had been shot multiple times in the back. He died at a hospital hours later.
The death was ruled a homicide.
In an opinion piece published by the Washington Post, the victim's parents, Jeff and Mary Rich, said police believed the murder was a robbery gone awry.
"Law enforcement officials told us that Seth's murder looked like a botched robbery attempt in which the assailants — after shooting our son — panicked, immediately ran and abandoned Seth's personal belongings," they said. Rich was found with his wallet, credit cards, watch and cellphone intact.
Jeff Rich told the Post separately that there were signs of a struggle indicating his son had attempted to fight off the assailants. With no leads or witnesses, the case remains unsolved.
Seth Rich was a voting specialist with the DNC. Days before his death, he had been offered a job with Hillary Clinton's presidential campaign in New York.
Less than two weeks after the Rich was killed, WikiLeaks published a collection of approximately 20,000 DNC emails, some suggesting that leaders in the Democratic party had worked to sabotage Bernie Sanders' presidential campaign. The leak followed a bitter primary battle, furthering divisions within the Democratic party and damaging Hillary Clinton's campaign.
The shooting and subsequent email leak, coupled with the fact that Rich was found with his belongings, fueled Twitter rumors that his murder was connected to his position at the DNC. Conspiracy theories arose claiming Rich was the source of the WikiLeaks emails and that he had been killed to prevent him from spilling his secrets to the FBI. Some claimed the murder was orchestrated by officials at the DNC — maybe even Hillary Clinton herself — and that those officials were involved in a cover-up to protect the party.
These rumors may have been extinguished, had WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange not fanned the flames. Assange took an unusual interest in the case, offering a $20,000 reward for information leading to a conviction.
Then, in a cryptic interview with a Dutch news outlet, Assange insinuated that Seth Rich may have been the source of the leak. “Our sources take risks,” Assange told a reporter after bringing up the Rich case. When pushed to explain whether he was, in fact referring to Seth Rich as the leaker, Assange declined, saying, “We don’t comment on our sources,” but adding, “We have to understand how high the stakes are in the United States.”
On May 16, Fox News broke what it called a “bombshell” of a story nationally. The article, published under the headline “Seth Rich, slain DNC staffer, had contact with WikiLeaks,” linked the leaks of tens of thousands of Democratic emails to insiders within the party rather than Russian hackers. It disputed the findings of several American intelligence agencies and purported to clear President Trump of any wrongdoing in the growing Russian election interference scandal.
The national story followed a May 15 broadcast by local affiliate Fox 5 DC, during which Wheeler told Fox 5 he had evidence connecting the DNC to Rich’s murder.
The report reignited the year-old, internet-based conspiracy theory that Democratic officials were somehow responsible for Rich’s death.
Malia Zimmerman, who wrote the article for the national network, cited an unnamed FBI official as a source, but also relied heavily on statements from Wheeler, who had been investigating the unresolved homicide, to make her case.
In Zimmerman’s article, Wheeler was quoted as saying, “My investigation up to this point shows there was some degree of email exchange between Seth Rich and Wikileaks.” And that “someone within the D.C. government, Democratic National Committee or Clinton team is blocking the murder investigation from going forward.”
In the lawsuit, Rod Wheeler claims he never made those two statements. He has also since backtracked on his statements to Fox 5 DC.
Fox News retracted the story on May 23, claiming it did not live up to the network’s reporting standards.
The making of a story
According to the lawsuit, Ed Butowsky, a wealthy Republican donor from Texas and unpaid Fox News commentator, coordinated the story and its release from the outset. Wheeler alleges that Butowsky and Malia Zimmerman worked together to create and promote a fake story that advanced President Trump’s interests.
An account in the filing states that Butowsky initiated contact with Wheeler in a February 23 text, citing his work with Fox News as something the two had in common. At the time, Butowsky told Wheeler he wanted to help the Rich family resolve the case.
When the two met in person a week later, Butowsky introduced Wheeler to Zimmerman. Transcripts in the lawsuit show that during the meeting, Butowsky said he wanted to prove Rich was linked to WikiLeaks. He believed the FBI had issued a report about the matter and that he could locate a source within the bureau to confirm its existence.
In March, Butowsky hired Wheeler to investigate the killing on behalf of the Rich family. From the outset, both the FBI and the Metro D.C. police denied the FBI’s involvement in the case.
The mission, according to Wheeler was always to show that Seth Rich was involved with the leak and that the leak had come from inside the Democratic party, which would undermine the theory that the Russia had any involvement. Butowsky was involved in constructing that narrative from the beginning, not in helping the Rich family as he has since claimed.
In April, Ed Butowsky and Rod Wheeler met with then press secretary Sean Spicer to discuss the story. According to the lawsuit, Wheeler gave Spicer a copy of his notes, and Spicer told them to keep him informed.
Spicer has confirmed the meeting and admitted to NPR that he had been told in advance about the story, but he denies working with the pair. "It had nothing to do with advancing the president's domestic agenda — and there was no agenda," Spicer told NPR. "They were just informing me of the story."
However, according to the lawsuit, Butowsky had continued contact with officials in the White House in the weeks before the story’s publication.
Pushing for publication
On May 10, Butowsky and Zimmerman informed Wheeler that they had an unnamed source in the FBI who could confirm Seth Rich sent emails to WikiLeaks. On May 11, Wheeler received a draft of the story, which did not contain either of the quotes in question.
Wheeler alleges in the lawsuit that Butowsky continued to pressure him to help get the story published. Two days before the report went live, Wheeler said, Butowsky sent him a text message that read, “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 also left a voicemail, in which he told Wheeler that the case had the “full attention of the White House.”
Wheeler also claims that Butowsky coached him before and after the story’s publication on how to frame the story about the hacking of DNC emails. In one text, Butowsky told Wheeler to stick to the narrative “that your and Malia’s work prove that the Russians didn't hack into the DNC and steal the emails and impact our election.”
“If you can, try to highlight this puts the Russian hacking story to rest,” another message said.
The lawsuit alleges Butowsky sent emails to hosts and producers at Fox, instructing them on the same talking points.
After the story aired with the allegedly fabricated quotes included, Wheeler says he contacted Butowsky to ask why they had been added. According to the lawsuit, “Butowsky stated that the quotes were included because that is the way the President wanted the article.”
The issue of timing
The timing of the story’s release is one key to Wheeler’s allegations. Fox broke the report as the Trump-Russia scandal was escalating.
President Trump fired former FBI Director James Comey on May 9, after complaining privately to Comey about investigations into members of his administration, including former National Security Advisor Michael Flynn. On May 12, as the scandal deepened, Trump implied on Twitter that there might be tapes of his conversations with Comey.
On May 15, the Washington Post reported that President Trump revealed classified information about the Islamic State to the Russian ambassador during a meeting in the Oval Office.
On May 16, the same day the disputed Fox News article was published nationally, the New York Times broke the story of the now-famous Comey memo, in which the former director had recorded the details of his personal conversations and phone calls with the president.
Fox News president Jay Wallace has released a statement, saying, “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.”
Support and backtracking
Despite the protests from the Rich family and law enforcement officials, Fox News Channel continued airing accounts of the report repeatedly between May 16 and its retraction on May 23. The story also got attention from Trump surrogate Newt Gingrich, the Russian embassy in the UK, the conspiracy website InfoWars and the alt-right site, Breitbart.
Wheeler appeared on several broadcasts during that time to discuss the story.
On one occasion he told Sean Hannity that while he has no personal knowledge about the email connection, a “very credible” federal agent could confirm the existence of a case file.
Hannity, who devoted ample air time on the story, said in a segment with Wheeler, "If this is true and Seth Rich gave WikiLeaks the DNC e-mails ... this blows the whole Russia collusion narrative completely out of the water."
Wheeler claims he regrets his actions.
Butowsky has tried to distance himself from the texts, conversations and voicemails documented in the lawsuit, as well as the story itself. He has said since the lawsuit became public that he had no contact with President Trump and that his texts to Wheeler about Trump wanting the story published were “tongue-in-cheek.”
Both former press secretary Spicer and current secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders have denied the White House or President Trump have any connection to the story.
The lawsuit names Fox News, 21st Century Fox, Ed Butowsky and Malia Zimmerman as defendants. Douglas Wigdor, an attorney representing Wheeler, also represents several other clients who have made complaints against Fox News.