A new lawsuit from a Fox News contributor alleges the upper echelons of the White House, including President Trump, had a hand in overseeing the now-retracted Fox News report about the murder of Democratic National Committee staffer Seth Rich.
The lawsuit, filed by Fox News contributor and private investigator Rod Wheeler, alleges the Fox News reporter who wrote the article about Rich's death fabricated quotes from Wheeler, and states that a wealthy GOP donor, Ed Butowsky, and Fox News used the article to deflect attention away from the investigation into Trump campaign associates and ties to Russian officials.
NPR first reported on the details of the lawsuit Tuesday morning.
After Rich's death in July 2016, Butowsky offered to hire Wheeler on behalf of the Rich family to investigate the young DNC staffer's death.
On May 16, nearly one year later, Fox News broke a story alleging that leaks of thousands of DNC emails came from within the party, rather than hackers linked to the Russian government. The article also suggested Democrats may have been tied to Rich's death, and said there was a cover up to impede the investigation into his murder.
The article from Fox News reporter Malia Zimmerman relied primarily on Wheeler, who was investigating Rich's death.
But the article from Zimmerman was quickly criticized by law enforcement, the Democratic Party, Rich's family, and fellow Fox News reporters.
Fox News retracted the report a week later.
Now, Wheeler is arguing the article was orchestrated by Butowsky, the GOP donor, and alleges in his lawsuit the report sought to "help put to bed speculation that President Trump colluded with Russia in an attempt to influence the outcome of the Presidential election," according to the complaint filed by Wheeler.
The first page of the lawsuit includes a text from Butowsky to Wheeler sent May 14 stating Trump read the Fox News article and wanted it published as soon as possible.
"Not to add any more pressure but the president just read the article," the text reads. "He wants the article out immediately. It's now all up to you. But don't feel the pressure."
Butowsky also allegedly left Wheeler a voicemail, reiterating that the White House was aware of the article.
"A couple minutes ago I got a note that we have the full, uh, attention of the White House on this," Butowsky said, according to the lawsuit. "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 article published eventually included two quotes from Wheeler, in which he says there was "some degree of email exchange between Seth Rich and WikiLeaks," and states that "someone within the DC government, Democratic National Committee or Clinton team is blocking the murder investigation from going forward."
Wheeler argues both of those quotes were fabricated and attributed to him because "that is the way the president wanted the article," according to his lawsuit.
"Zimmerman, Butowsky and Fox had created fake news to advance President Trump's agenda," the lawsuit states.
In addition to running the article by Trump, Wheeler, and Butowsky also met with then-White House press secretary Sean Spicer to discuss the information they were uncovering.
Wheeler's lawsuit alleges that the two men provided Spicer with a copy of Wheeler's investigative notes, and Spicer asked to be notified of any developments in the case.
Spicer told NPR he met with Butowsky and Wheeler as a favor to the GOP donor and was not aware of any involvement from the president. Butowsky told NPR he was joking about Trump looking over drafts.
Jay Wallace, president of news for Fox News, disputed the claims in Wheeler's lawsuit, which also accuses Fox News of racial discrimination.
"The accusation that FoxNews.com published Malia Zimmerman's story to help detract from coverage of the Russia collusion issue is completely erroneous," Wallace said in a statement. "The retraction of this story is still being investigated internally and we have no evidence that Rod Wheeler was misquoted by Zimmerman. Additionally, Fox News vehemently denies the race discrimination claims in the lawsuit—the dispite between Zimmerman and Rod Wheeler has nothing to do with race."
But Wheeler's lawyer accuses Fox News, the White House, and Butowsky of using his client as a "pawn."
"Rod Wheeler unfortunately was used as a pawn by Ed Butowsky, Fox News and the Trump administration to try and steer away the attention that was being given about the Russian hacking of the FNC emails," Douglas Wigdor, Wheeler's lawyer, told NPR.