If you thought the White House Russia Collusion Story mill was running low on creative new twists, think again. This one involves President Donald Trump reviewing a pre-publication Fox News story—about a knowingly fake conspiracy designed to distract from Trump/Russia news—and personally pushing for its publication. Fun!
Wheeler’s a former detective who used to work for the Washington, D.C. police and has been a paid contributor to Fox for several years. Earlier this year, he was asked by a Fox affiliate to investigate the murder of former Democratic National Committee staffer Seth Rich.
Rich was murdered last year in what police say was a botched armed robbery. But prominent right wingers—notably, for example, Fox News anchor Sean Hannity—tried to spin self-serving tales about the murder. They’ theorized that Rich was murdered because he had tried to leak DNC emails to Wikileaks that would damage Hillary Clinton’s 2016 campaign. Such a story would cast doubt on whether Moscow was actually behind the hack of DNC emails, and would take the punch out of stories about collusion between the Kremlin and the Trump campaign/administration. No one had ever provided proof to back up the Hannity-shilled version of events, but Wheeler was about to become enmeshed in the most significant attempt to push this conspiracy into the mainstream.
He and and the other Fox contributor—a Texas investor named Ed Butowsky—met with then-White House Press Secretary Sean Spicer on April 20 to talk about what they’d found. Spicer confirmed the meeting to NPR. On May 16, when Spicer was asked about the Fox News story on Rich’s murder, he didn’t acknowledge the meeting.
Wheeler and Butowsky continued apace, along with Fox News producer Malia Zimmerman, who would go on to write the Fox News story that would end up sparking a rush of interest in Rich’s story.
The plan was to publish the story, and have Wheeler make the TV rounds to play it up, which he did. And here’s the wild part:
Days before Zimmerman’s story went online on May 16, Butowsky called and texted Wheeler, to let him know that the White House was watching—and that Trump had reviewed the story. And was eager for it to hit the internet.
Whether the sentiments of those messages are true, or whether Butowsky was just trying to keep Wheeler on point, is up for debate.
Zimmerman let Wheeler review the article before it published, but Wheeler says the initial copy differed from the published version in a significant way—it included two quotes attributed to Wheeler that he says were made up. The quotes make Wheeler sound like he’s the driving force behind the story. Both begin with “my investigation” and one says “there was some degree of email exchange between Seth Rich and Wikileaks.”
Wheeler’s lawsuit states that, “According to Butowsky, the statements were falsely attributed to Mr. Wheeler because that is the way the President wanted the article.”
This is a Fox News contributor alleging Fox News put words in his mouth to smear a dead kid because the president wanted it. pic.twitter.com/2Sjf4MWVl3
— Alex Seitz-Wald (@aseitzwald) August 1, 2017
Fox News ran with the story all over the network, and only retracted it on May 23, saying it didn’t meet the networks’ editorial standards. Wheeler says Fox blamed him as the story went up in flames, and now Wheeler is suing, in effect, to salvage something of his reputation. And if what the lawsuit alleges is true—a significant if at this point—his reputation is in tatters because of Trump.
Fox News, for its part, vehemently denied that the network colluded with the president to tamp down stories about the connections between the Trump administration and the Russian government.
“The accusation that FoxNews.com published Malia Zimmerman’s story to help detract from coverage of the Russia collusion issue is completely erroneous,” Fox News President of News Jay Wallace said in an emailed statement. “The retraction of this story is still being investigated internally and we have no evidence that Rod Wheeler was misquoted by Zimmerman.”