The White House was partly behind Fox News’ reporting of a now-retracted story linking slain Democratic National Committee staffer Seth Rich to e-mail leaks that had been blamed on Russia, a lawsuit filed Tuesday in Manhattan federal court asserts.
Ex-cop Rod Wheeler, hired by a supporter of President Donald Trump to probe Rich’s death, said in the suit that Fox intentionally misquoted him, and with the White House and Trump backer Ed Butowsky, used him to make bogus claims to divert attention from the Russian hacking scandal.
Wheeler said that he and Butowsky, both Fox contributors, met in the White House with former press secretary Sean Spicer to discuss the story on one occasion, and that he was later told by Butowsky just before the story appeared in May that Trump himself previewed it and pushed Fox to publish it.
“Not to add any more pressure but the president just read the article,” Butowsky, a Texas financial adviser and donor, allegedly said in an email. “He wants the article out immediately. It’s now all up to you. But don’t feel the pressure.”
White House Press Secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders said Tuesday that Trump had “no knowledge” of the Fox story, and called it “completely untrue” that the White House helped develop it. Spicer admitted to a brief meeting but also denied any White House role, The Washington Post reported.
Wheeler’s suit claims his part in the erroneous story damaged his reputation. It names Butowsky, Fox and reporter Malia Zimmerman as defendants. Butowsky did not respond to a request for comment. Fox President Jay Wallace, in a statement, disputed Wheeler’s claims.
“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.”
Wheeler, a former Washington D.C. detective, said Butowsky hired him in 2016 to help investigate the shooting death of Rich — who police say died in a botched robbery — on behalf of the DNC staffer’s family amid rumors he might have been linked to the leak of campaign emails by WikiLeaks.
When the story finally ran, Wheeler said it included two quotes from him — one claiming Rich had contact with WikiLeaks, and the other saying a full investigation was being blocked — that were made up and were not supported by his investigation.
The suit alleges that Butowsky was in regular contact with Spicer, top Trump adviser Steve Bannon, and the Justice Department’s public affairs spokesperson. Spicer, Wheeler claimed, reviewed his “investigative notes” at the meeting and “asked to be kept abreast of developments.”
Wheeler said Butowsky later told him the fabricated quotes from him were included in the article “because that is the way the president wants the article.”
The motivation behind the story, published a week after the firing of FBI Director James Comey created a firestorm, was to “shift the blame from Russia and help put to bed speculation that President Trump colluded with Russia,” the suit said.
Wheeler did not claim in the lawsuit to have had any direct contact with Trump or anyone else in the White House aside from one meeting with Spicer, and it relied on remarks from Butowsky rather than personal knowledge for the allegations of White House involvement.
In addition to defamation, Wheeler, who is African-American, also said in the lawsuit that after years working as a Fox contributor he had never been hired full time or promoted to a position as prominent as white commentators like Bo Dietl, the ex-NYPD detective running for mayor in New York City.
Wheeler accused Fox of racial discrimination. Wallace denied that charge in his statement.