Former homicide detective and Fox News paid commentator Rod Wheeler has sued the right-wing cable news network, alleging one of its reporters misquoted him in a hyper-controversial and quickly retracted story about slain Democratic National Committee staffer Seth Rich from May. The details of the lawsuit were exclusively reported by NPR on Tuesday, and on close examination, it's hard to overstate the explosiveness of the raft of allegations contained within ― there are some downright insane allegations in the Seth Rich Fox News lawsuit, ones that could also have major implications for national politics.
First things first, it's essential to note that Wheeler's claims are coming in the context of a lawsuit, and while some details have reportedly been corroborated by other sources, not all of them have been factually proven. The network's president of news, Jay Wallace, gave the following statement on Wheeler's lawsuit, which also includes an allegation of racial discrimination:
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.
That said, it can't be denied that the allegations are drawing widespread attention, and will be the subject of a lot of discussion and scrutiny. Here are some of the most shocking and consequential things Wheeler and his attorney are claiming, courtesy of NPR's in-depth report.
1. Wheeler Was Allegedly Misquoted In The Retracted Report
In May, Fox News ran a report suggesting that last year's hacking of the DNC had been done not by Russian hackers, as has been widely reported and asserted by U.S. intelligence agencies, but had come from someone within the party itself. Specifically, it suggested that Rich, who was slain in his neighborhood last year in a still-unsolved crime, may have been the leaker.
The report, by Fox News reporter Malia Zimmerman, relied heavily on a pair of incendiary quotes from Wheeler. But the report was retracted a week later for failing to meet Fox News' editorial standards, and Wheeler now alleges the quotes were fabricated and falsely attributed to him. In his statement, Wallace says there's "no evidence" Wheeler was misquoted by Zimmerman.
2. The Investigation Was Allegedly Backed By A Wealthy Trump Supporter
Wheeler further alleges that his investigation into Rich's death was backed and overseen by a wealthy Texas Republican named Ed Butowsky, who himself occasionally appeared as a guest on Fox News and the Fox Business Network. Wheeler's lawsuit alleges that Butowsky is a Trump supporter, an opponent of Hillary Clinton, and a friend of White House senior strategist Steve Bannon and then-White House Press Secretary Sean Spicer.
3. Trump Allegedly Read The Report Before It Ran
The lawsuit includes a screenshot of a text Wheeler claims he received from Butowsky just two days before the report was published. In the text, Butowsky claims that a draft of the report ― which would ultimately last on Fox News' website for just a week before being retracted and removed ― had been read and approved-of by none other than President Donald Trump himself.
4. Trump Allegedly Wanted The Report Published Quickly
Specifically, the text from Butowsky claimed not only that Trump had read the report, but that he wanted it to be released "immediately." It reads as follows:
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 reportedly told NPR that he was kidding when he mentioned Trump's involvement, and according to Gabriel Sherman called the lawsuit "bullsh*t" and denied having ever spoken to the president in his life.
5. Butowksy Allegedly Left A Voicemail About White House Involvement, Too
The lawsuit also claims that minutes prior to sending the text, Butowski left Wheeler voicemail speaking slightly more cryptically of having the "attention of the White House." The full voicemail is transcribed as follows:
A couple minutes ago I got a note that we have the full, uh, attention of the White House, on this. And, tomorrow, let's close this deal, whatever we've got to do. But you can feel free to say that the White House is onto this now.
Again, Butowsky denies having ever spoken to Trump, and says he was kidding when he left the voicemail, followed by the more explicitly detailed text saying Trump read a draft of the report.
6. Wheeler And Butowsky Met With Spicer A Month Before The Article Came Out
This aspect of the lawsuit has actually gotten some external corroboration from Spicer himself, who confirmed to NPR that he had a meeting with Wheeler and Butowsky in April, about a month before the article was released. He reportedly said he took the meeting as a "favor" to Butowsky, who the lawsuit describes as a friend of his, and he denied any knowledge of Trump's involvement with the now-retracted article.
However, when asked about the report during a press gaggle after it was released, Spicer denied knowing anything about it.
7. Wheeler's Lawyer Alleges The Quotes Were Fabricated Because That's What Trump Wanted
In the text of the lawsuit, Wheeler's attorney Douglas Ligdor alleges that two quotes attributed to his client in the report were false, one claiming he'd found ties between Rich and Wikileaks, and one claiming somebody with the government, DNC, or the Clinton team was blocking the investigation into Rich's murder.
Wigdor alleges this was because Trump wanted the story to be written that way, saying as follows:
Mr. Wheeler – who was the only named source quoted in the article – did not make these statements. According to Butowsky, the statements were falsely attributed to Mr. Wheeler because that is the way the President wanted the article . Zimmerman, Butowsky and Fox had created fake news to advance President Trump’s agenda. Mr. Wheeler was subsequently forced to correct the false record and, as a result, lost all credibility in the eyes of the public. Mr. Wheeler has suffered irreparable damage to his reputation and his career will likely never recover.
Wigdor also claims that Butowsky and Fox News reporter Malia Zimmerman stayed in regular contact with Spicer, Bannon, and Department of Justice Director of Public Affairs Sarah Isgur Flores regarding the story.
8. It Was Allegedly Meant To Divert Attention Away From Trump-Russia Collusion Accusations
According to the lawsuit, the whole endeavor was intended to establish that Rich leaked the DNC's emails to Wikileaks, rather than the widely-held view that they were stolen by Russian hackers. If true, this would have ostensibly allowed the Trump administration to portray reporting about ties between the Trump campaign and Russia as fake news, and demand contrition from the media and the U.S. intelligence community. The lawsuit alleges as follows:
As it turned out, Butowsky and Zimmerman were not simply Good Samaritans attempting to solve a murder. Rather, they were interested in advancing a political agenda for the Trump Administration. Specifically, it was their aim to have Mr. Wheeler confirm that: (i) Seth Rich was responsible for the leak of DNC emails to WikiLeaks; and (ii) Seth Rich was murdered by a Democrat operative because he leaked the emails to WikiLeaks.
The notion that Rich was slain by a Democratic operative is a longstanding conspiracy theory for which there is absolutely no evidence. While local authorities have not solved the Rich case, they believe he died in a botched robbery.
9. Butowsky Allegedly Asked Wheeler To Claim The Report Proved Russia Didn't Interfere In The Election
According to the lawsuit, Butowsky sent Wheeler a text the morning the story was published, asking him to emphasize that the Rich story ― which again, was retracted just a week later ― proved that the Russians did not hack the DNC, and therefore that the narrative of Russian interference in the 2016 election was false. Butowsky allegedly texted Wheeler as follows:
If you can, try to highlight this puts the Russian hacking story to bed.
Just reflecting: we need to emphasize the FBI has a report that has been suppressed that shows that Seth rich did this. With Comey recently being fired this will gain a lot of attention and it's true.
Butowsky also allegedly texted Wheeler that morning to encourage him to say that "the Russian hacking narrative of stealing the records from the DNC is officially dead."
9. Zimmerman Allegedly Told Wheeler To Use The Story With Fake Quotes In It
The lawsuit also alleges that Wheeler "confronted" Zimmerman about the quotes falsely attributed to him in the story, and she told him to "stick to that script" in response.
Reread the story we sent to you last night and stick to that script.
While Zimmerman has not spoken out about the allegations contained in the lawsuit ― according to NPR, Fox News declined to allow her to comment ― Wallace's statement insists there is "no evidence" to support Wheeler's claim he was misquoted.
For his part, Wheeler is arguing that his reputation has undergone severe and likely permanent damage as a result of the fallout surrounding the retracted report ― his attorney argues in the suit that his client's career "will likely never recover."