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Explosive Lawsuit: White House & Fox Peddled Seth Rich Conspiracies to Distract from Russia Probe

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An explosive lawsuit filed by a former Fox News contributor is alleging that his former network fabricated quotes and worked directly with the White House to push a fake news story to prop up conspiracy theories linking the murder of DNC staffer Seth Rich last year to WikiLeaks. Rich was an aide at the Democratic National Committee who was fatally shot in Washington, D.C., in July 2016. In May of this year, Fox News published a piece titled “DC Murder Mystery: Slain DNC Staffer Was Wikileaks’ Source, Say Investigators.” The article claimed that Rich—not the Russians—provided WikiLeaks with internal emails from the DNC. The only person quoted in the piece—Fox contributor and retired D.C. police detective Rod Wheeler—is claiming Fox knowingly attributed false quotes to him. The complaint also alleges direct White House involvement in the story. For more, we speak with independent journalist Marcy Wheeler.

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This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

AMY GOODMAN: We look at a stunning new lawsuit filed by a former Fox News contributor which accuses the network, Fox, of working with the White House to peddle fake news about the murder of Seth Rich. Seth Rich was an aide at the Democratic National Committee who was fatally shot in Washington, D.C., one year ago. In May of this year, Fox News published an explosive piece online headlined “DC Murder Mystery: Slain DNC Staffer was Wikileaks’ Source, Say Investigators.” The article claimed that Rich—not the Russians—provided WikiLeaks with internal emails from the DNC. But within weeks, Fox retracted the story.

Now the only person quoted in the piece, Fox contributor and retired D.C. police officer Rod Wheeler, is claiming Fox knowingly used made-up quotes from him. And that’s not all. The lawsuit also alleges direct White House involvement in the story. In the lawsuit, the former police detective, Wheeler, claims he was used as a pawn in a plan by the White House to, quote, “shift the blame from Russia and help put to bed speculation that President Trump colluded with Russia in an attempt to influence the outcome of the presidential election,” unquote. At the time, Wheeler was being paid to investigate the Rich killing by a Trump donor in Texas named Ed Butowsky. The lawsuit also claims Wheeler received a text message from Butowsky saying, quote, “Not to add any more pressure but the president just read the article. He wants the article out immediately,” unquote.

Well, on Tuesday, White House Press Secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders was questioned about the lawsuit.

GLENN THRUSH: There’s a report out today, based on a lawsuit that was filed, that says that Sean Spicer met with a campaign donor and a journalist from Fox News, where they were pushing around this story that Seth Rich, this low-ranking DNC staffer who was murdered, was perhaps the one responsible for the WikiLeaks breach. Two questions. Sean put out a statement. He said it was just a brief meeting. He said the guy didn’t know the president. The lawsuit alleges that the president knew about it and had an influence on the story. Did the president know about the story pre-publication, and did he have an influence on the way the story was written?

PRESS SECRETARY SARAH HUCKABEE SANDERS: The president had no knowledge of the story, and it’s completely untrue that here, the White House involvement in the story. And beyond that, this is ongoing litigation, and I’d refer you to the actual parties involved, which aren’t the White House.

GLENN THRUSH: Follow-up: Does it disturb you that the press secretary for the president of the United States, who just gave this incredibly passionate pushback on us for focusing on Russia—does it disturb you—you just sped right past this—does it disturb you that there is an allegation out therer in a lawsuit, and Sean Spicer admitted meeting with these two individuals, that this was discussed in your White House, that this—

PRESS SECRETARY SARAH HUCKABEE SANDERS: He met with members of the media. I don’t find that to be of—

GLENN THRUSH: He met with a—he met with—he met with a member of the media who was pushing—

PRESS SECRETARY SARAH HUCKABEE SANDERS: —a strange thing. You guys are all members of the media.

GLENN THRUSH: He was pushing a story that was later retracted because it was false. He met with that reporter, and he met with a campaign donor. Does it disturb you? Does it say anything about this White House that you would entertain that kind of story?

PRESS SECRETARY SARAH HUCKABEE SANDERS: It doesn’t bother me that the press secretary would take a meeting with somebody involved in the media about a story.

AMY GOODMAN: That’s White House Press Secretay Sarah Huckabee Sanders, a part of what she said yesterday. Still with us is Marcy Wheeler, who runs the website EmptyWheel.net. No relation to Rod Wheeler, who brought the lawsuit against his former network, Fox. Marcy, explain. Lay this very tangled web out. This is not an easy lawsuit to understand.

MARCY WHEELER: Well, what’s important about the White House involvement is that when the story first came out, in May, Sean Spicer was asked, “Did you have any involvement in this?” And he denied it, very aggressively, to NBC. And then, yesterday, he was quoted as confirming that he was involved prior to the actual release of the story. So all of a sudden, now that Spicer is losing his job at the White House, his story has changed.

AMY GOODMAN: Well, wait, let me—let me play—

MARCY WHEELER: And he has confirmed—

AMY GOODMAN: Let me play what Sean Spicer said, then the White House secretary, in May about the Seth Rich story.

RONICA CLEARY: Sean, can we get a White House reaction or the president’s reaction to the report that Seth Rich was emailing WikiLeaks before his murder?

PRESS SECRETARY SEAN SPICER: I don’t—I’m not aware of—generally, I don’t get updates on DNC—former DNC staffers. I’m not aware of that.

RONICA CLEARY: It would certainly have a great influence on where the leaks came from, if they could potentially—I mean, there’s a lot of implications in this story, of course. But—

PRESS SECRETARY SEAN SPICER: I understand that, but for me to comment from here about an ongoing investigation—I believe it’s still ongoing. I don’t even know the status of it, in terms of D.C. But it would be highly inappropriate to do that.

AMY GOODMAN: So that was Sean Spicer in May. In fact, he had had a meeting in April with Butowsky and with Wheeler, right, Marcy?

MARCY WHEELER: Right. And so, all of a sudden, his story has changed. And that is, I think, one of the most important parts of the lawsuit. I mean, it’s important for people to remember that a lawsuit is just a lawsuit, and you can make any kinds of claims in that that you want, although Wheeler claims to have documentation of Butowsky, who is the donor, of the Fox journalist involved, both of them admitting that they effectively invent—attributed these quotes to him when they weren’t his quotes. He claims to have his own quotes that he gave to the journalist, which were scrapped in favor of these ones, which basically said that the DNC or D.C. government had thwarted the investigation into Seth Rich’s murder, and also said that Rich’s computer had evidence that he was in communication with WikiLeaks. So those are the two invented quotes. That’s what the—that’s what the gist of the lawsuit is about. Wheeler said, “You invented these quotes. You attributed them to me. Even after retracting the story, you have not retracted the association between me and those quotes.” And so, what he’s asking for is compensation for having been defamed by Fox News because those quotations, which have been discredited, are still there in his name, and he never said them.

AMY GOODMAN: And talk about that text that Rod Wheeler, the former police detective, got from Butowsky, if this is true, the donor, the longtime Trump supporter and donor, that said the president has read this, and he wants this to be published.

MARCY WHEELER: Right. And the idea is—and, again, this is a really well-written lawsuit to capture the attention of the press. At the very beginning of the lawsuit, they start with this text. The idea is that these quotations, which were not Wheeler’s, he claims, these quotations ended up in a story attributed to him because the president wanted them there, because the president wanted to push back. And again, the lawsuit makes it very clear. This story came out in the wake of the Jim Comey firing. So, the story gets started back in February. It’s kind of churning along, all along the way. Jim Comey gets fired. And within days, Fox News presents this story trying to create an entirely different narrative about Russia’s involvement and Seth Rich’s involvement in the leaked emails to WikiLeaks. And so, it’s a response, allegedly, to the Jim Comey firing. It is an attempt to present an alternative story.

Again, it’s another lie that came from at least the White House, or at least the involvement of the White House, about the role of Russia in getting Trump elected. And Butowsky, at least—this is the donor from Texas—Butowsky, at least in his texts—he’s now claiming he was joking, but at least in his texts, he said that the president had already seen the story and was pushing to get the story on the air on Fox News. So, if Butowsky’s texts are right—and I suspect he may one day be put under oath by somebody like Robert Mueller—if those texts are right, then it’s another incident where Donald Trump personally involved in trying to rebut this—the intelligence community’s findings about Russia involvement in getting him elected.

AMY GOODMAN: On Tuesday, former Fox News contributor Rod Wheeler appeared on MSNBC to talk about his lawsuit against Fox.

ROD WHEELER: And I learned about that from Ed Butowsky. He’s the one that sent me an email, which I’ve, you know, shown. I mean, I’ll show the emails, and I have shown them, and voicemails, where he said the president has reviewed the story. This is the story that the reporter was going to release. This is before the story was released. This is what he sent to me: “The president has reviewed this story and wants it out there.”

ARI MELBER: Wow! So, hold on.

ROD WHEELER: And this comes from Ed Butowsky.

ARI MELBER: Right. What did you think when you got that text?

ROD WHEELER: Well, first of all, I’m thinking, “Why would the president have to review a story pertaining to a death—to the murder of a guy in D.C.? Why would the president even be involved in this?” But at that point, Ari, it was rather obvious to me that they actually lured me into this investigation—”they” meaning this Fox News reporter and Ed Butowsky—to substantiate this Russia narrative thing or to debunk that, when in fact they told me that I was really getting involved just to solve a murder.

AMY GOODMAN: So that’s the Fox News contributor, former, who is suing Fox right now. The significance of what he’s saying, Marcy?

MARCY WHEELER: Well, and again, it’s important to remember that he kind of went along with the story, so he’s not 100 percent credible, but he has a lot of documentation for what he alleges in his lawsuit. And Butowsky, meanwhile, is just saying, “Hey, I was joking.”

The significance, again, is that this is—this is a story that Fox News invented about a guy who got murdered. They retracted the story, but they have not retracted the quotes. And it’s interesting, in the lawsuit, it makes it very clear that the journalist involved and Butowsky both said that they had gotten the substance of those quotes from some guy at the FBI that they didn’t name. Wheeler suggests that that FBI guy was just invented, which, if that’s right, it would sort of make it similar to a story that Bret Baier on Fox News told right before the election, where he said a bunch of Fox agents were—sorry, a bunch of FBI agents were sure that Hillary was going to be indicted. It would be a second case where Fox had a story alleging FBI claims that then got retracted, that was really central to politics. But in any case—

AMY GOODMAN: And Malia Zimmerman is the reporter for Fox that did this story.

MARCY WHEELER: Right, right, right. And she—you know, it’s interesting because she, after the retraction of the story, gave a statement to Seth Rich’s family where she basically blamed it all on Wheeler. And when he asked her about it, when Wheeler asked Zimmerman about it, she was like, “Well, this is what the lawyers at Fox News told me to write. I didn’t write the statement.” So Fox is institutionally blaming all of this now on Wheeler. And as I said, he seems to have a fair amount of documentation to show that he was set up, that he was set up to voice these—these, basically, conspiracies about this murdered staffer.

AMY GOODMAN: And very quickly, because we have to move on to our next segment, Butowsky and Benghazi, can you talk about the connection?

MARCY WHEELER: Right. So, Butowsky, in one of the texts that Wheeler includes in the lawsuit, says, “I’m responsible for most of what we know about Benghazi.” So, Butowsky not only is responsible for this conspiracy about Seth Rich, but he himself claims to be responsible for the conspiracy about Benghazi.

AMY GOODMAN: Explain that.

MARCY WHEELER: Well, I mean, Fox News and the Republicans made a big deal about the death of a number of—of four people in Benghazi in 2012. And Ed Butowsky, as you said, a Republican donor—I would call him a rat [bleep], a classic Republican operative, dirty operative, he claims that the Benghazi fake scandal came from him, as well. So, he’s got a history of inventing scandals and inventing conspiracies where none existed. And I think that sort of lends towards Wheeler’s credibility in this lawsuit.

AMY GOODMAN: Finally, of course, the casualty here is the Seth Rich family, who are dealing with the death of their son in his mid-twenties, the DNC staffer who was murdered. And their response to all of this, Marcy?

MARCY WHEELER: Well, they have wanted to just grieve and, I mean, ideally, get the murder solved. But it keeps—his death keeps being turned into a conspiracy that it’s not. And I think one of the most appalling things yesterday is that Butowsky, before this lawsuit came out, deleted his Twitter account, and he said, “Well, you know, people are saying mean things about me on Twitter.” And it’s like, dude, you just invented a conspiracy about a murdered guy, and you’re complaining about people being mean to you on Twitter. It’s just—it’s just appalling that the Rich family has to continue to have their son be turned into the fodder of this kind of conspiracy mongering.

AMY GOODMAN: Marcy Wheeler, I want to thank you for being with us, independent journalist who covers national security and civil liberties. She runs the website EmptyWheel.net.

This is Democracy Now! When we come back, a young man who’s come over the border, who border agents force to drink what he is carrying. He dies of a convulsion. They’re forcing him to drink liquid meth. Stay with us.

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