A lawsuit filed Tuesday lays out a tale of Trump allies, the White House and Fox News Channel conspiring to push a false story about Democratic leaks and an unsolved killing in order to distract attention from the Russia investigation that has been swirling around the president.
The defamation suit was filed against Fox by an investigator, Rod Wheeler, 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. Wheeler alleges that Fox quoted him as saying things he never said and was willing to show President Trump its article before publication.
Rich's death has become fodder for conspiracy theorists, angering the 27-year-old's family. In May, the story was thrust into the headlines again when Fox published an article on its website in which Wheeler reportedly said there had been contact between Rich and WikiLeaks, the organization that posted a trove of 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 says he never made that statement. He also contends he was told the comments falsely attributed to him were put in the story because Trump wanted it that way.
Fox says it's "completely erroneous" to suggest it pushed the story to distract from the Russia investigation.
Wheeler has made contradictory statements about the case. He is also alleging racial discrimination by the network, and he is represented by a lawyer who has other lawsuits against Fox.
White House Press Secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders said that 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 contributor on law enforcement issues, said he was brought into the Rich case by donor and Trump supporter Ed Butowsky. He says Butowsky, who has also made occasional guest appearances on Fox News, was intent on establishing a link between Rich and WikiLeaks.
Two days before the Fox article was published, Wheeler said, 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 he has never met Trump and 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 that "it was not initially subjected to the high degree of editorial scrutiny we require for all of our reporting."
Before the article was published, Wheeler's lawsuit says, Butowsky and Wheeler met with White House Press Secretary Sean Spicer and gave Spicer a copy of Wheeler's notes on the investigation. Spicer asked to be kept informed, it says.
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.… The White House had nothing to do with his story."
The suit also alleges that in the weeks and months before the article was published, Butowsky had contact with Trump administration officials — including Spicer and Steve Bannon, Trump's chief strategist — "regarding his efforts relating to Seth Rich."
After publication, Wheeler called Butowsky asking for an explanation for the false statements, the lawsuit says.
"Butowsky stated that the quotes were included because that is the way the President wanted the article, referring to President Donald Trump," the suit says.
Wheeler alleges that at several points before the article was published, Butowsky sent text messages to Wheeler to try to persuade him to say the Russians did not hack into the DNC.
"Butowsky sent a text message to Mr.Wheeler that reads, in part, '[t]he narrative in the interviews you might use is that your and Malia's work prove that the Russians didn't hack into the DNC and steal the emails and impact our election,'" the lawsuit says. Malia Zimmerman was a Fox producer on the story.
The next morning, Wheeler alleges, Butowsky sent text messages to him again.
"If you can, try to highlight this puts the Russian hacking story to rest," the messages said, according to the lawsuit. "Just reflecting: we need to emphasize the FBI has a report that has been suppressed that shows that Seth Rich did this. With [FBI Director James] Comey recently being fired this will gain a lot of attention and it's true."
Jay Wallace, Fox News president, said Tuesday: "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," Wallace said.
In May, Wheeler told Fox's local affiliate in Washington that he "absolutely" had sources at the FBI saying that there was information that could link Rich to WikiLeaks. But the station noted that Wheeler subsequently said contradictory things to other news organizations.
Wheeler is represented by Douglas Wigdor, an attorney who is also representing Fox News employees in a separate suit alleging racial discrimination and sexual harassment.
Wheeler's suit is the latest in a barrage of cases against Fox News, several of which have led to high-profile exits from the company.
The exits began last summer, when Roger Ailes, the network's founder and chief, was pushed out amid allegations of sexual harassment. Other prominent departures include that of star anchor Bill O'Reilly, who resigned this spring in a separate sexual harassment scandal, and of co-President Bill Shine, who — facing mounting criticism over his handling of such allegations — headed for the door soon after.
Ailes, who died in May, denied all allegations made against him. O'Reilly has denied the merits of the claims leveled at him, even though $13 million was paid in settlement claims to women who complained about his behavior.
Times staff writer Alexa D'Angelo contributed to this report.
4:55 p.m.: This article was updated throughout with quotes and background information.
12:35 p.m.: This article was updated with additional details from the lawsuit.
9:50 a.m.: This article was updated with a comment from Fox.