WASHINGTON — The lawyer for a Washington private investigator who is suing Fox News over its use of allegedly invented quotes in a news story advancing a bizarre conspiracy theory said Tuesday he will seek to depose President Trump and former White House press secretary Sean Spicer to question them over their roles in the affair.
“We’re going to litigate this case as we would any other,” and that means “we’ll want to depose anyone who has information,” including the president, said attorney Douglas Wigdor, who is representing the investigator, Rod Wheeler.
The lawsuit was filed in a New York federal court on Tuesday against Fox News, one of its reporters, Malia Zimmerman, and Ed Butowsky, a Dallas-based financier who has often appeared as a commentator on Fox News and allegedly worked with Zimmerman on a story about the death of former DNC staffer Seth Rich.
According to the lawsuit, which was first reported by National Public Radio’s David Folkenflik, Butowsky on his own hired Wheeler, a former Washington, D.C., homicide detective, to investigate Rich’s murder. The 27-year-old Rich was shot on a Washington street one night last July in what police believe was a botched robbery.
The lawsuit charges Butowsky worked with Zimmerman to create a fake news story connecting Rich to the leak of emails from the Democratic National Committee, something intelligence agencies have said was orchestrated by the Russian government.
“Butowsky and Zimmerman were not simply Good Samaritans,” the lawsuit alleges. “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.”
In a telephone interview Tuesday night with Yahoo News, Butowsky called the lawsuit “bulls***” and flatly denied the suit’s claim that he had worked with President Trump or other White House officials to manufacture quotes to promote the now discredited story about Rich and WikiLeaks. “I’ve never spoken to the president in my life,” said Butowsky. His text messages to Wheeler, quoted in the lawsuit and referring to President Trump’s interest in the upcoming Fox News story, were “teasing” comments by him to the investigator because “he wanted me to get him a job at the White House.”
The suit alleges that to support this narrative, Fox News manufactured quotes and attributed them to Wheeler, harming his reputation.
Wigdor told Yahoo News that Trump and Spicer are among a half dozen key witnesses he will seek to depose. The legal papers allege that Butowsky and Zimmerman met with Spicer at his White House office in April to discuss the upcoming story and that Trump himself specifically reviewed early drafts of the story and recommended editorial changes and an aggressive publishing schedule on the Fox News website.
Butowsky, in his comments to Yahoo News, did acknowledge that he and Wheeler met with then press secretary Spicer at the White House last April and discussed information that suggested Seth Rich was a source for WikiLeaks. But he said Spicer “kind of brushed the whole thing off” and told him, “I can’t do anything. We can’t do anything from here.”
Wigdor released to Yahoo News audio recordings that he said support the lawsuit’s claim that Butowsky deliberately inserted fake quotes from Wheeler into a Fox News story that appeared on May 16 and has since been retracted. According to the complaint, the phony quotes were inserted into the story because “that is the way the President wanted the article” after he reviewed a draft.
“One day you’re going to win an award for having said those things you didn’t say,” a voice that is said to be Butowsky can be heard saying to Wheeler on the tape recording provided to Yahoo News.
The story, which ran on the Fox News website under Zimmerman’s byline, asserted that Rich, who was a data specialist at the DNC, had provided a cache of internal DNC emails to WikiLeaks, which in turn made them public. The story received widespread attention on Fox host Sean Hannity’s TV show and in other conservative, pro-Trump media for obvious reasons: If true, it would have undercut the unanimous conclusion of U.S. intelligence agencies that the theft of emails was perpetrated by Russian state-sponsored hackers to boost Trump’s candidacy and harm Hillary Clinton.
But no evidence has surfaced that Rich had any connection to WikiLeaks or the theft of the emails. The Washington, D.C., Metropolitan Police Department believes that Rich died as a result of a botched street robbery, although there have been no arrests.
Zimmerman’s story was retracted on May 23, one week after it was published. Fox News released a statement about the article’s removal on the network’s website.
“The article was not initially subjected to the high degree of editorial scrutiny we require for all our reporting. Upon appropriate review, the article was found not to meet those standards and has since been removed,” the statement said.
Wheeler’s complaint includes evidence, in the form of text messages and emails, to support its claims that Trump and Spicer were involved in crafting and promoting the May 16 story. But the emails and text messages are from Butowsky, attributing comments and actions to the president, not directly from the president or anybody at the White House.
“Not to add any more pressure but the president just read the article,” Butowsky texted Wheeler on May 14, 2017, two days before the story ran on Fox’s website. “He wants the article out immediately. It’s now all up to you. But don’t feel the pressure.”
Moments earlier, according to the complaint, Butowsky left a voicemail on Wheeler’s phone, saying: “A couple of 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.”
At a White House press briefing today, Sarah Huckabee Sanders denied the lawsuit’s claim about a White House role in crafting the Fox News story. “The president had no knowledge of the story and it is completely untrue that there was White House involvement in the story,” said Sanders. “Beyond that, this is ongoing litigation and I refer you to the actual parties involved, which aren’t the White House.”
Sanders did not respond to an email asking whether Trump would be willing to give a deposition in the lawsuit. Spicer also did not respond to a request for comment from Yahoo News. However, Spicer had earlier told NPR that he did agree to meet with Wheeler and Butowsky at the White House as a “courtesy” to Butowsky.
Zimmerman could not be reached despite multiple attempts on Tuesday. At one phone number associated with her name, a man answered and identified himself as “a family member.” The man said he had been “harassed by the media all day.”
“If you call me again I am going to send you a lawsuit so don’t call me again,” the man said before hanging up.
In a statement, Fox News’ President of News 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.” Wallace further claimed the story’s retraction is “still being investigated internally and we have no evidence that Rod Wheeler was misquoted by Zimmerman.”
The quotes attributed to Wheeler in the retracted story portray him as supporting the unfounded conspiracy theories about Rich. “My investigation up to this point shows there was some degree of email exchange between Seth Rich and WikiLeaks” was one of the quotes attributed to Wheeler. Another has him saying: “My investigation shows someone within the DC government, Democratic National Committee or Clinton team is blocking the murder investigation from going forward. That is unfortunate. Seth Rich’s murder is unsolved as a result of that.”
The claim that the White House had a role in crafting the Fox News story brought a quick comment Tuesday from the DNC.
“If these allegations are true, it is beyond vile that the White House — and possibly even Trump himself — would use the murder of a young man to distract the public’s attention from their chaotic administration and Trump’s ties to Russia,” DNC spokeswoman Xochitl Hinojosa said in a statement. “The Rich family has begged those responsible for these conspiracies to stop. And yet, Trump’s allies have ignored their pain and their pleas, degrading the office of the president by spreading repulsive lies.”
Hinojosa further suggested the allegations “should outrage any decent human being” and accused “Trump’s associates and their conspirators at FOX” of adding to the Rich family’s pain.
Brad Bauman, a spokesman for the Rich family, said the conspiracy theories were painful for the Rich family. While he would not address the merits of the allegations in the suit, Bauman said he hoped it would put an end to the questions surrounding Rich’s death.
“While we can’t speak to the evidence that you have, we are hopeful that this brings an end to what has been the most emotionally difficult time in our lives and an end to conspiracy theories surrounding our beloved Seth,” said Bauman.
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