Suit al­leges de­ceit by Fox News, Trump

Fox de­nies mis­quot­ing plain­tiff, let­ting Oval Of­fice vet now-re­tracted email story

Northwest Arkansas Democrat-Gazette - - NEWS - DAVID BAUDER AND JILL COLVIN

NEW YORK — A law­suit filed Tues­day claims that Don­ald Trump al­lies, the White House and Fox News Chan­nel con­spired to push a false story about Demo­cratic leaks and an un­solved killing in an at­tempt to dis­tract at­ten­tion from the Rus­sia in­ves­ti­ga­tion that has been swirling around the pres­i­dent.

The law­suit al­leg­ing defama­tion and racial bias was filed against Fox News by an in­ves­ti­ga­tor who had been look­ing into the killing of Seth Rich, a for­mer Demo­cratic Na­tional Com­mit­tee staff mem­ber killed in 2016 in what po­lice say was a botched rob­bery. The in­ves­ti­ga­tor, Rod Wheeler, al­leges that Fox News quoted him as say­ing things he never said and was will­ing to show the pres­i­dent its story be­fore it was posted online.

It’s the sec­ond time in two days that Trump has been ac­cused of being ac­tively in­volved in push­ing a pub­lic nar­ra­tive to lower the heat of the Rus­sia in­ves­ti­ga­tion. The Wash­ing­ton Post re­ported that the pres­i­dent had writ­ten a mis­lead­ing state­ment for his son to give to The New York Times about Don­ald Trump Jr.’s meet­ing last summer with a Rus­sian who promised dirt on Demo­crat Hillary Clinton’s pres­i­den­tial cam­paign.

Rich’s death has be­come fod­der for con­spir­acy the­o­rists, an­ger­ing the 27-yearold’s fam­ily. In May, the story was thrust into the head­lines again when Fox News posted a story on its web­site in which Wheeler said there had been con­tact be­tween Rich and Wik­iLeaks, the or­ga­ni­za­tion that posted thou­sands of stolen DNC emails last year. The story was heav­ily pro­moted by Fox News host Sean Han­nity, who has in­for­mally ad­vised the pres­i­dent.

In the law­suit, Wheeler, a for­mer Wash­ing­ton, D.C., homi­cide de­tec­tive, now says that he never made that state­ment. He also con­tends he was told his false com­ments were put in the story be­cause Trump wanted it that way.

Wheeler, who is black, also claims in the suit that he has faced dis­crim­i­na­tion at Fox News be­cause of his race. Wheeler, who is paid a set amount for each ap­pear­ance he makes on the chan­nel, says that he has re­ceived less air­time, money and pub­lic­ity than his white col­leagues.

Fox News said it’s “com­pletely er­ro­neous” to sug­gest that it pushed the story to dis­tract from the Rus­sia

in­ves­ti­ga­tion. Wheeler has made con­tra­dic­tory state­ments re­gard­ing the case and is si­mul­ta­ne­ously fil­ing a racial dis­crim­i­na­tion law­suit against the chan­nel, rep­re­sented by a lawyer who has other law­suits against Fox.

White House spokesman Sarah Huck­abee San­ders said Trump had no knowl­edge of the false story be­fore it was posted and that it was “com­pletely un­true” that the White House had any role in shap­ing it.

Wheeler, a Fox News con­trib­u­tor on law en­force­ment is­sues, said he was brought into the Rich case by donor and Trump sup­porter Ed Bu­towsky. He said Bu­towsky, who has also made oc­ca­sional guest ap­pear­ances on Fox News, was in­tent on es­tab­lish­ing a link be­tween Rich and Wik­iLeaks.

Wheeler said that two days be­fore the Fox ar­ti­cle was pub­lished, he got a text mes­sage from Bu­towsky: “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 said in a phone in­ter­view Tues­day that he has never met Trump and that his text mes­sage to Wheeler about the pres­i­dent read­ing the ar­ti­cle was “tongue-in-cheek.”

Fox re­moved the story from its web­site a week after it was pub­lished, say­ing “it was not ini­tially sub­jected to the high de­gree of ed­i­to­rial scru­tiny we re­quire for all of our re­port­ing.” Han­nity ul­ti­mately backed away, say­ing he was act­ing out of re­spect for Rich’s fam­ily.

Wheeler also said he and Bu­towsky had met with thenWhite House spokesman Sean Spicer and showed Spicer notes on Wheeler’s in­ves­ti­ga­tion. Spicer asked to be kept in­formed, the law­suit said.

Spicer played down the im­por­tance of that meet­ing.

“Ed is a long­time sup­porter of the pres­i­dent’s agenda who of­ten ap­pears in the me­dia,” Spicer said Tues­day. “He asked for a 10-minute meet­ing, with no spec­i­fied topic, to catch up and said he would be bring­ing along a con­trib­u­tor to Fox News. As Ed him­self has noted, he has never met the pres­i­dent, and the White House had noth­ing to do with his story.”

On the day the Fox story was posted, Spicer was asked about the re­port that Rich had emailed Wik­iLeaks. He said, “I’m not aware of that,” and he did not men­tion that he had met with Bu­towsky and Wheeler a month ear­lier.

One of Trump’s at­tor­neys, Jay Seku­low, also de­voted at­ten­tion to the Rich story dur­ing sev­eral Han­nity ap­pear­ances in May, be­fore his hir­ing by Trump was an­nounced.

“There’s a lot more to this, I would sus­pect,” Seku­low said on the May 18 show, which Han­nity de­voted al­most en­tirely to a dis­cus­sion about Rich. “You can’t ig­nore the fact that it was a DNC staffer. You can’t ig­nore the fact that there was noth­ing taken from the in­di­vid­ual’s body.”

He said that while he hadn’t seen “the files” on Rich, the in­ci­dent “un­der­cuts” the ar­gu­ment that Rus­sians in­ter­fered in the elec­tion.

Trump for months has faced news sto­ries about the in­ves­ti­ga­tions into Rus­sian med­dling in the 2016 cam­paign and pos­si­ble ties be­tween his cam­paign aides and Moscow. He con­tin­ues to blast the in­quiries as a “witch hunt” aimed at dis­cred­it­ing his elec­tion win and tries to fo­cus at­ten­tion on Clinton, who has largely faded from the head­lines.

Fox News Pres­i­dent Jay Wal­lace said, “The ac­cu­sa­tion that FoxNews.com pub­lished Malia Zim­mer­man’s story to help de­tract from cov­er­age of the Rus­sia col­lu­sion is­sue is com­pletely er­ro­neous.” Malia Zim­mer­man was a Fox pro­ducer on the story.

“The re­trac­tion of this story is still being in­ves­ti­gated in­ter­nally and we have no ev­i­dence that Rod Wheeler was mis­quoted by Zim­mer­man,” Wal­lace said.

Fox News also de­nied the racial dis­crim­i­na­tion claims in the suit.

In May, Wheeler told Fox’s af­fil­i­ate in Wash­ing­ton that he “ab­so­lutely” had sources at the FBI say­ing there was in­for­ma­tion that could link Rich to Wik­iLeaks. But the sta­tion noted that Wheeler sub­se­quently said con­tra­dic­tory things to other news or­ga­ni­za­tions, and the sta­tion could not con­tact him again.

Trump has fos­tered a close re­la­tion­ship with Fox and many of its per­son­al­i­ties, par­tic­u­larly Han­nity. Han­nity gave Trump a fre­quent plat­form for non-chal­leng­ing in­ter­views dur­ing the cam­paign.

In­for­ma­tion for this ar­ti­cle was con­trib­uted by Donna Cassata and Shel­ley Acoca of The As­so­ci­ated Press and Emily Steel of The New York Times.

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