Trump Urged Fox News to Broadcast Bogus Conspiracy Theory About Slain DNC Aide
In mid-May, President Trump encouraged Fox News to publish a false story about slain Democratic National Committee staffer Seth Rich in order to distract attention from the ongoing investigation of ties between his campaign and Russia, according to a lawsuit filed in New York federal court on Monday.
The 33-page lawsuit provides a glimpse into the extraordinary duplicity that fueled Fox News’ reporting on the Seth Rich story. Rich, a voter data analyst in DNC, was murdered on a Washington street last summer in what D.C. police believe was a botched robbery.
The allegations in the lawsuit may have legal consequences for Trump and Fox News.
The lawsuit was filed by Rod Wheeler, a former police detective and longtime paid Fox News commentator hired by Rich’s family to investigate the crime. Wheeler claims Fox News commentator Ed Butowsky and correspondent Malia Zimmerman collaborated with the White House to spread the story that Rich, not the Russians, had provided DNC emails to WikiLeaks.
Trump was personally involved, says Wheeler. Butowsky, he alleges, sent him a text May 14, two days before the story ran, saying, "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 told Wheeler he hoped the story would rebut allegations of Russian support for Trump during the 2016 campaign, according to Wheeler.
“Everyone, there’s so many people throughout Trump’s four years and maybe eight years are always going to fall back on the idea that he is not legitimate and the Russians got him elected," Butowsky said, according to the lawsuit. “This [information about Seth Rich providing emails to WikiLeaks] changes all of that.”
On May 16, the day the story ran, Butowsky told Wheeler in a voice mail:
“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.”
The suit also alleges that Butowsky maintained “regular contact with Trump administration officials,” including Sean Spicer, Steve Bannon and Sarah Flores, the public affairs director at the Department of Justice, regarding “his efforts relating to Seth Rich.”
The Fox News story, promoted as a "bombshell," quoted Wheeler as saying that Rich had been in touch with WikiLeaks and someone in the government was blocking the investigation. Wheeler says both quotes were fabricated.
Extorting the News
When the story was denounced by Wheeler and the Rich family, Butowsky proposed blackmailing investigative reporter Seymour Hersh to “save” the story.
Wheeler says Butowsky disclosed the plan to “extort” Hersh in a phone conversation May 19. He says Butowsky said he planned to send Hersh a five-second tape recording of his voice and a demand that he disclose one of his FBI sources on the story.
“You have three hours to write back who at the FBI you spoke to, with his name, that read you the Seth Rich report,” Butowsky allegedly said. “If you don’t give us that in three hours, a full recording of everything we have will be at every news agency tonight with your name and phone number on it. If you give it to us, you will never hear from us again."
The lawsuit does not say why the tape recording would have been so threatening to Hersh.
On May 23, Fox News retracted the story, saying it did not adhere to the agency's standards.
On Monday, Sean Spicer confirmed to NPR that he had met twice with Butowsky about the story, but denied Trump was involved. Butowsky told NPR he was "joking" about the president's involvement.
Asked to comment on the allegations, Hersh replied, via email, "Hey, I live in the real world."
Trump’s role in the story has two possible implications, one for the Russia investigation, the other for Fox News.
Trump’s involvement in promoting a false story would only be significant for the ongoing Russia investigation if other solid evidence of obstruction of justice emerges. Jonathan Turley, law professor at George Washington University, says such evidence is lacking.
"While [Trump’s involvement] can be cited as part of a pattern,” Turley said in an email, “there is still not a compelling mosaic of a crime. This is a particularly small tile in any mosaic theory. There is a danger when otherwise lawful acts are assembled to create a criminal claim.”
Trump’s involvement is also relevant to the bid of 21st Century Fox, the parent company of Fox News, to buy the Sky, a European satellite TV network.
In June, British authorities delayed approval of the $15 billion transaction and asked regulators to further examine whether the deal would give the Rupert Murdoch family too much control over the country’s media.
“The transaction may increase members of the Murdoch Family Trust’s ability to influence the overall news agenda and their ability to influence the political process,” British culture minister Karen Bradley said in a statement.
The bogus Seth Rich story provides British regulators a glimpse into how Fox seeks to influence the news agenda and the political process: with fabricated quotes, blackmail threats and the encouragement of the president of the United States.