A new lawsuit alleges Fox News and a wealthy Trump supporter — under the supervision of the White House — worked to fabricate the debunked conspiracy theory that Seth Rich was murdered because of his connections to Wikileaks.
NPR’s David Folkenflik is reporting that those explosive allegations are being made by Rod Wheeler, a Fox News contributor and private investigator who was the source of the false information that formed the initial Fox News report that brought the theory to national prominence.
The conspiracy theory follows that Rich, a DNC staffer who was slain in July 2016 in what police believe was a botched robbery, was actually murdered after he passed on documents from the DNC to Wikileaks.
Wheeler, a Fox News commentator and private investigator hired by wealthy right-wing investor Ed Butowsky to investigate the murder, in May claimed to have evidence of contact between Rich and Wikileaks, and alleged that police were covering it up.
Despite being widely discredited, the story was picked up by conservative news outlets, and promoted extensively on Fox News shows like Sean Hannity’s — who continued to cover the story, even after Fox News was forced to retract their original report.
Doug Wigdoor, Wheeler’s lawyer is now claiming that his client “unfortunately was used as a pawn by Ed Butowsky, Fox News and the Trump administration to try and steer away the attention that was being given about the Russian hacking of the DNC e-mails.”
The lawsuit further alleges that Butowsky partnered with Fox News reporter Malia Zimmerman to create the unfounded story.
What’s more, “Wheeler alleges he was told the Trump administration was monitoring their progress,” Folkenflik reports.
Butowsky even arranged a meeting with Sean Spicer in April, in which he and Wheeler presented their findings to the then-White House press secretary.
Spicer told NPR that he merely took the meeting as a courtesy to Butowsky, “a reliable Republican surrogate,” as Folkenflik notes.
In his report, Folkenflik provides a stunning timeline of how the report came to be, according to the lawsuit:
May 9: Trump fires FBI director James Comey, who was overseeing an investigation into Russian election meddling.
May 10: Zimmerman and Butowsky “call Wheeler to say they have an FBI source confirming emails were sent from Seth Rich to WikiLeaks.”
May 11: “Zimmerman sends Wheeler a draft of her story, which is to run initially on the network’s website. It includes no quotes from Wheeler.”
May 14: Butowsky sends an email to Fox & Friends hosts Ainsley Earhardt, Steve Doocey and Brian Kilmeade “coaching them on how to frame the Rich story.” In the email, Butowsky claimed the story would refute the notion of coordination between the Trump campaign and Russia.
May 15: Fox & Friends covers the story in the morning, after it was published on FoxNews.com and on affiliate Fox 5 DC. It goes national, before unravelling completely. Wheeler would later claim that the quotations in Zimmerman’s report were “were fabricated and untrue.”
UPDATE: Fox News has provided Mediaite the following statement from Jay Wallace, President of News:
“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.”
[image via screengrab]