Fox Accused in Lawsuit of Publishing Fake News at Trump's Behest

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A new lawsuit filed in New York claims that President Donald Trump got an advance look on a Fox News story purportedly showing the Russians weren't behind hacked DNC emails published by WikiLeaks. According to the complaint, Trump pushed Fox News to publish the story "immediately." The problem was that the story allegedly contained fabricated quotes.

The lawsuit comes from Rod Wheeler, a former Washington, D.C., homicide detective and a Fox News contributor. He is said to have worked with Ed Butowsky, a Dallas-based financial adviser with connections to the White House. Together, they investigated the death of Seth Rich, a DNC staffer who was murdered on July 10, 2016.

Conspiracy theorists, perhaps prompted by cryptic statements from WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange, have sought to demonstrate that it was Rich who provided WikiLeaks with emails that gained notoriety during the 2016 election. If Rich did this, that would mean the Russians didn't. It would perhaps take pressure off of the Trump campaign in an investigation of whether there was collusion.

On May 14, Wheeler says Butowsky texted him, "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 also allegedly left a voicemail that stated, "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."

Fox News published the story, credited to reporter Malia Zimmerman, and attributed two quotes to Wheeler that the plaintiff now says were fabricated. One where Wheeler said, "My investigation up to this point shows there was some degree of email exchange between Seth Rich and WikiLeaks," and the other where Wheeler said, "My investigation shows someone within the DC government, Democratic National Committee or Clinton Team is blocking the murder investigation from going forward."

This was fake news, alleges Wheeler in a defamation suit. He says Fox News published the story a few days after Trump fired FBI Director James Comey as a way to shift blame.

"Mr. Wheeler — who was the only named source quoted in the article — did not make these statements," states the complaint. "According to Butowsky, the statements were falsely attributed to Mr. Wheeler because that is the way the President wanted the article. Zimmerman, Butowsky and Fox had created fake news to advance President Trump’s agenda. Mr. Wheeler was subsequently forced to correct the false record and, as a result, lost all credibility in the eyes of the public. Mr. Wheeler has suffered irreparable damage to his reputation and his career will likely never recover."

The lawsuit further alleges that Butowsky kept in regular contact on the Rich investigation with Trump administration officials including Sean Spicer, Steve Bannon and a Justice Department spokesperson named Sarah Flores.

"Shockingly, it is clear that simultaneous with such baseless claims of nonpartisanship, Fox was contriving with Butowsky and members of the Trump Administration to publish and disseminate fake news to affect politics in America," reports the complaint. "Such devious scheming is precisely why British regulators have yet to provide a green light to Fox for the Sky takeover bid, and why many U.K. politicians question whether Fox is capable of news dissemination in a fair and neutral manner."

Fox News retracted the story May 23 — a week after it ran — with the note that it "was not initially subjected to the high degree of editorial scrutiny we require for all our reporting."

That retraction came after Wheeler met with Fox News executives including Diane Brandi, executive vp legal and business affairs, and Jay Wallace, executive vp news and editorial, to express concerns. However, the retraction made no mention of fabricated quotes or looked to correct the record.

Read the full complaint, which also includes a racial discrimination claim and a demand for injunctive relief and unspecified monetary damages, below.

"The accusation that published Malia Zimmerman's story to help detract from coverage of the Russia collusion issue is completely erroneous," says Wallace in reaction to the lawsuit. "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 dispute between Zimmerman and Rod Wheeler has nothing to do with race."

Spicer brought word from the White House.

"Ed is a longtime supporter of the president's agenda who often appears in the media," the outgoing communications chief told CNN. "He asked for a 10-minute meeting, with no specified topic, to catch up and said he would be bringing along a contributor to Fox News. As Ed himself has noted, he has never met the president and the White House had nothing to do with his story."

NPR's David Folkenflik first reported news of this lawsuit. CNN's version included a comment from Butowsky that the lawsuit was "bullshit" and a bid from the plaintiff's lawyer "to make money."