Bananas if true, but is it true? Let me put it this way: The most trustworthy person in this sordid tale appears to be … Sean Spicer. Good luck teasing the actual truth out of the morass of accusations that follows.
Quick and dirty background: Back in May, Fox News dropped a bombshell that Seth Rich, the DNC staffer murdered in Washington last year, had exchanged tens of thousands of emails with Wikileaks before his death and the FBI knew all about it. The implication, obviously, was that Rich had been the source of the DNC emails published by Wikileaks during the campaign, not “Russian hackers,” and the feds were secretly well aware of that. The whole “Russiagate” collusion narrative was garbage, ginned up by Trump-hating bureaucrats to try to delegitimize the president. The prime source for the supposed Rich/Wikileaks connection was former D.C. cop turned private investigator Rod Wheeler, who had been hired to investigate Rich’s murder. But there were problems: “An FBI source says the Bureau never had Rich’s laptop. A law enforcement source told NBC that there are no emails to or from anyone at Wikileaks on the computer. And Wheeler himself admitted that he got his info about the emails from a report on Fox News, not anything he had independently discovered.” Fox ended up retracting the story entirely on May 23, a huge embarrassment given that Sean Hannity had been pumping it in primetime.
So what happened? That’s where the lawsuit comes in. Per NPR, Wheeler is now suing Fox, claiming that the network fabricated quotes about the case and attributed them to him. He also claims that a well-connected investor and Trump backer named Ed Butowsky pushed the baseless Rich/Wikileaks connection as a way to exculpate Trump from Russiagate — with the president’s full support, if Butowsky was to be believed. Hmmmm:
Butowsky says he became convinced that the FBI had a report concluding that Seth Rich’s laptop showed he had had contacts with WikiLeaks after speaking to the legendary reporter Seymour Hersh, who was also investigating Rich’s death. According to the transcripts in the lawsuit, Butowsky said Hersh had an FBI source who confirmed the report…
“I hear gossip,” Hersh told NPR on Monday. “[Butowsky] took two and two and made forty-five out of it.”…
On May 10, Butowsky and Fox’s Malia Zimmerman call Wheeler to say they have an FBI source confirming emails were sent from Seth Rich to WikiLeaks, though they do not share the source’s identity, according to the investigator’s suit. Wheeler will later say this is the only federal law enforcement source that Fox News — or he — has related to this story.
After the Fox story ran, Wheeler was allegedly surprised to see himself quoted as claiming there were emails sent between Rich and Wikileaks and that someone in D.C. government, the DNC, or the Clinton campaign tried to block the police investigation. He never said those things, he insists; the information about Rich and Wikileaks came to him from Butowsky and Zimmerman, who got it through their mysterious “FBI source.” Wheeler claims in the lawsuit that he held a three-way phone call with Butowsky and Zimmerman after the story was published and that Butowsky said this:
Butowsky weighs in: “One day you’re going to win an award for having said those things you didn’t say.” Later, according to the recordings transcribed in the suit, Butowsky acknowledges Wheeler hadn’t made any claims of personal knowledge about emails between Rich and WikiLeaks. “I know that’s not true,” Butowsky says. “If I’m under oath, I would say I never heard him say that.”
Days earlier, Butowsky also supposedly said this:
On May 14, about 36 hours before Fox News’ story appeared, Butowsky left a voicemail for Wheeler, saying, “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.”
Butowsky also texted Wheeler: “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.”
Did the White House conspire with Butowsky to push a possibly manufactured story pinning the DNC hackings on an innocent man? Butowsky told NPR he was only joking with Wheeler about Trump’s involvement and that he never shared any drafts of the Fox story with Trump or his aides. The quotes above aren’t obviously jokey, though; if Butowsky was lying about the White House’s involvement, probably it was to put pressure on Wheeler to go along with the Rich/Wikileaks story he wanted Fox to run. Before you dismiss the possibility of Trump’s participation out of hand, though, note that Butowsky and Wheeler did meet with Sean Spicer at the White House in April, about a month before Fox published the story. Butowsky claims the meeting was arranged to help Wheeler get a job at the White House — but Spicer admits that they discussed what Wheeler and Butowsky had been investigating vis-a-vis Seth Rich. No one has any hard evidence that Trump himself took an interest, but (a) Butowsky obviously had enough cred to get with Team Trump to get inside the White House, (b) Trump’s good friend Sean Hannity went very hard after the Rich story once Fox had published it, and (c) the idea of Trump nudging a friendly media outlet to run interference for him on a damaging story like Russiagate jibes with years of practice at manipulating the tabloids in New York and on supermarket checkout stands.
Fox naturally denies everything:
Statement from Jay Wallace, president of news at Fox News pic.twitter.com/Bohlw5snSU
— Oliver Darcy (@oliverdarcy) August 1, 2017
For the moment all of this rests on, er, Rod Wheeler’s credibility, but maybe only for the moment. On the one hand, his complaint claims he has “texts, emails, voicemails, and recorded conversations” substantiating his interactions with Butowsky. On the other hand, NPR notes that when Wheeler was asked on camera by a Fox affiliate on May 15 whether his own sources had alleged any connection between Rich and the Wikileaks emails, Wheeler replied, “Absolutely. Yeah. That’s confirmed.” Fox’s lawyers will have fun with him on cross-examination. Just like Wheeler’s lawyers will have fun with Sean Spicer.