On May 16, just a few days after Donald Trump fired James Comey for overseeing the FBI’s Russia investigation, Fox News published a “bombshell” report alleging that Democratic National Committee staffer Seth Rich was in contact with WikiLeaks before he was murdered. The story, an outright conspiracy theory, conveniently suggested that Rich was responsible for the DNC email leaks in the 2016 election rather than Russian hackers, despite what U.S. intelligence officials had concluded. The story quickly fell apart and Fox News retracted it a week later.
Much of the piece hung upon so-called evidence that Rod Wheeler, a private investigator and paid Fox News contributor, had provided. Wheeler is now suing the news network, claiming that it fabricated the quotes it had attributed to him. But perhaps the most interesting and damning part of the lawsuit is that Wheeler claims that Trump himself read and reviewed the story and pressured Fox News to publish it.
The suit includes a text from Ed Butowsky, a wealthy Trump supporter and Fox News commentator, who had hired 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.” There is also a voicemail left for Wheeler in which Butowsky states, “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 told NPR that he was just joking around.)
Trump rose to prominence thanks to Fox News, which had him on air multiple times in 2011 to blast his birther conspiracy theory about Barack Obama. The difference this time around is that, if Wheeler’s claims are true, the president of the United States used the outlet to spread fake news to divert attention from the ongoing investigation into his campaign’s ties to Russia.