Continuing our long great day’s journey into night, a new lawsuit filed against Fox News alleges that the White House was preemptively briefed on a since-retracted story involving murdered Democratic National Committee aide Seth Rich—a conspiracy theory that Fox News and a wealthy Trump supporter, with the White House’s alleged encouragement, flouted as a distraction from investigation into possible Russian collusion. Of course, the “alleged” part really only applies to the accusations regarding Fox News’ intent and the White House’s endorsement, along with the charge that its reporter, Malia Zimmerman, fabricated quotes to support her story. We now know that the White House actually was briefed before the story ran, because ex-press secretary Sean Spicer actually said as much.
It’s a revelation that has some troubling implications about the relationship between the Trump administration and his Fox News propaganda arm and their possible collaboration on the spread of harmful misinformation. Which, in any other reality besides our dizzying M.C. Escher hellscape, might actually mean something. Today it just means it’s Tuesday and, reassuringly, that there is no chaos.
NPR has a thorough report on the lawsuit filed by Rod Wheeler, former police detective turned private investigator and Fox News commentator, who was hired to look into Rich’s murder in Washington D.C. If you live a relatively healthy life that involves regular constitutionals and sunshine and not listening to Sean Hannity, and you therefore haven’t heard of Seth Rich, here’s a quick primer: The 27-year-old Rich, a DNC employee, was fatally shot on July 10, 2016, in what police say was a botched robbery attempt.
But because of his DNC ties, and thanks to baseless, “just asking questions” assertions on Fox News, a conspiracy theory took root that Rich was actually murdered by the Clinton campaign because he was the mole who’d sent internal information to WikiLeaks—a theory that would thus magically absolve Russia (and therefore Trump) of any meddling in the election. It was an unfounded, ludicrous theory supported by no one but human Benghazi memes like Hannity, Alex Jones, and Newt Gingrich and their vast army of dead-eyed automatic retweeters, and even Fox News eventually retracted it. And now Wheeler, who became the central figure in this 4chan forensics farce, is suing those he says orchestrated the entire thing and made him the patsy.
According to the suit—which came backed by texts, emails, voicemails, and recorded phone conversations—Wheeler was first contacted by Ed Butowsky, an investor and Trump backer who’d also appeared frequently on Fox. At a meeting also allegedly attended by Fox News’ Zimmerman, Butowsky asked Wheeler to look into the case, ostensibly on behalf of Rich’s family. Approximately two months into that investigation, on April 20, Wheeler was then asked to join Butowsky at the White House, so that the two could meet with Sean Spicer and “keep him abreast of the investigation.” Spicer now tells NPR’s David Folkenflik, rather bizarrely, that the meeting “had nothing to do with advancing the president’s domestic agenda—and there was no agenda,” but instead “they were just informing me of the [Fox] story.”
Here’s where we pause to point out, as Media Matters’ Matthew Gertz did this morning, that Spicer denied any awareness of the Rich story in a May 16 briefing. As Spicer admitted today, that was a lie.
The next part is more open to interpretation, depending on your definition of “joke.” In both a recorded voicemail and a text message, Butowsky contacted Wheeler about 36 hours before the story ran, saying that they have “the full attention of the White House on this” and that Trump himself had reviewed the story and “wants the article out immediately.” Hilarious stuff, Butowsky says, because he was just “joking with a friend,” and was only “kidding about Trump’s involvement” after the two had already met, at the White House, with his press secretary. In fact, both Butowsky and Spicer claim that the president never actually had any contact with Butowsky or saw a draft. (And if he did, it was about adoption.) Nevertheless, Wheeler’s lawsuit alleges that the White House ‘s involvement—both this possibly clever prank about the president reading something, as well as the actual, confirmed meeting with Spicer—pressured him to move forward with the story despite his reservations.
Wheeler’s attempt to paint himself as the morally conflicted pawn beholden to larger forces is the most troublesome part of this entire accusation, and at the crux of his lawsuit is the allegation that Fox News defamed him by manufacturing two false quotes: one citing personal knowledge of email exchanges between Rich and WikiLeaks, and another alleging a DNC attempt to stymie the murder investigation. But in a recording of a three-way call between Wheeler, Butowsky, and Zimmerman, the latter two do seem to acknowledge that Wheeler didn’t say those things (“One day you’re going to win an award for having said those things you didn’t say,” Butowsky tells Wheeler.) And in a separate call, the suit alleges, Butowsky told Wheeler that the quotes were kept in “because that is the way the President wanted the article.”
It’s unclear whether that last call was recorded, but Wheeler’s lawsuit does include emails from Butowsky to Fox News producers and hosts, such as the Fox & Friends team, pushing a White House agenda, coaching them on how to frame the Seth Rich story as proof that “the Russians did not hack our computer systems and ste[a]l emails and there was no collusion” between “Trump and the Russians.” There is also a text from Zimmerman to Wheeler encouraging him to “stick to the script,” including the quotes he says were fabricated.
In addition to accusations of ruining his reputation, Wheeler, who is black, has also charged Fox News with racial discrimination, saying that he received less airtime and compensation than his white colleagues during his time there. Fox News, for its part, denies any such discrimination, and adds that there is “no evidence” that Wheeler was misquoted or had false quotations attributed to him. In a statement, the network’s president of news Jay Wallace says:
“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.”
Fox News retracted its Seth Rich story on May 23 amid criticisms from police, the Rich family, and its own reporters; eventually, even Sean Hannity had to shut up about it. By that time, of course, it had already ballooned into one of our most pervasive conspiracies, a genuine bit of “fake news” with consequences both political and personal that, apparently, is still being “investigated” more than two months later.
But whether you believe all of Wheeler’s claims— or you believe, as Butowsky avers, that “the lawsuit is bullshit” and that Wheeler’s lawyer “pulled this out of his butt to make money”—there is still the confirmation that the White House did receive a briefing from the Trump-aiding architects of that fake news, then later denied it. Today, current press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders denied it again:
Anyway, tomorrow is Wednesday. Got any big plans for the weekend?