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Lawsuit: President Trump reviewed bogus Fox News story before its release

A new lawsuit makes the explosive claim that President Donald Trump personally reviewed an erroneous Fox News story about the death of a young Democratic National Committee staffer prior to that story’s release.

First reported by NPR’s David Folkenflik, the lawsuit purports to unveil that the White House reviewed a story that launched conspiracy theories across the web. It alleges that, on May 14, Trump donor Ed Butowsky texted a Fox News commentator to say that the president had “just read” an upcoming story about the death of Seth Rich, the 27-year-old DNC staffer gunned down outside his Washington, DC, home last year.

The lawsuit was filed by Rod Wheeler, a longtime Fox News commentator who says that Fox News fabricated quotes attributed to him to support the false story.

That Fox News story, published on the channel’s local affiliates on May 15 and circulated by its national outlets on May 16, claimed that Rich had leaked thousands of emails to WikiLeaks. Citing federal investigators, the story cast doubt on the DC police’s explanation of Rich’s death as the result of a burglary — and fueled online conspiracy theories that Rich was killed for blowing the whistle on the Democratic Party.

The story has since been widely debunked, and Fox News retracted it after it was up for one week, saying it didn’t meet the news outlet’s editorial standards. (The consensus of the American intelligence communities is that the Russian government was behind the WikiLeaks email dump.)

The White House is denying this is true, and Butowsky now says he was joking when he said Trump reviewed the story, according to NPR. Moreover, nothing in the lawsuit provides evidence to suggest that the White House intentionally inserted misleading information into the story, or that it provoked the conspiracy theories that accompanied its release.

Fox News is also denying the lawsuit’s claims. “The accusation that FoxNews.com published ... [this] story to help detract from coverage of the Russia collusion issue is completely erroneous,” said Jay Wallace, Fox’s president of news, in a statement. “The retraction of this story is still being investigated internally and we have no evidence that Rod Wheeler was misquoted.”

A quick rundown of the major players in the Seth Rich conspiracy theory

To understand the new claims against the White House, it’s useful to back up and look at the central players involved.

One key figure is Butowsky, the Trump donor, Republican surrogate, and Dallas investor who began investigating Rich’s death on his own accord, according to Folkenflik. Butowsky, also a Fox News commentator, has acknowledged trying to push the Rich-WikiLeaks storyline.

Butowsky also hired the other central player in this story: Rod Wheeler, who filed the lawsuit released on Tuesday. Wheeler, a former police detective who is also a Fox News commentator, agreed to help Butowsky investigate the case and was quoted by the network as saying, “My investigation up to this point shows there was some degree of email exchange between Seth Rich and WikiLeaks.” Wheeler appears to have since turned on Butowsky and Fox News, alleging in this new lawsuit that they deliberately mischaracterized the results of his investigation into Rich’s death and, in so doing, destroyed his credibility in the public eye.

Another key figure is Malia Zimmerman, the Fox News reporter who published the story. The lawsuit claims that Zimmerman “fabricated” Wheeler’s quotes to advance the Rich story.

Lastly, there’s Rich himself. The 27-year-old Nebraska native worked at the DNC helping people find where to vote. He’d previously worked at Greenberg Quinlan Rosner, a progressive opinion research and consulting firm. As Vox’s Jeff Guo explained, police found Rich on the sidewalk with multiple gunshot wounds, at least two in the back, and that he was the apparent victim of an attempted robbery. Because Rich worked at the DNC, which was subject to a hack, the circumstances of his death have spurred numerous conspiracy theories, both on the right and the left.

The lawsuit fingers Trump’s White House directly

Wheeler’s lawsuit makes claims against Fox News and Butowsky, alleging that the network ran with fabricated quotes to concoct the story about Rich originally published.

But it also points the finger at the White House directly. On the first page of the lawsuit, Wheeler recounts a text from Butowsky that makes the claim that the president has read the story:

The lawsuit provides other evidence suggesting that the White House may have been involved in the story. For instance, one page relays a voicemail that Butowsky sent Wheeler shortly before the story’s publication:

Additionally, the lawsuit notes that Butowsky took a meeting with then-White House Communications Director Sean Spicer. “Do you have a summary done yet?” Butowsky said in a text to Wheeler on April 18. “Just want to make sure we get point to Sean easily.”

Spicer told NPR that “he's not aware of any contact, direct or not, between Butowsky and Trump.” Moreover, Butowsky now tells NPR he has never shared drafts of the story with President Trump or his aides — that he was joking with a friend.

Additionally, NPR reported that Spicer says he took the meeting “as a favor to Butowsky, a reliable Republican voice. Spicer says he was unaware of any contact involving the president.”

Despite Spicer’s denials, it’s clear that at least Butowsky believes he was working the White House to fuel the Rich story. As Butowsky texted Wheeler: “We need to emphasize the FBI has a report that has been suppressed that shows that Seth Rich did this. With Comey recently being fired this will gain a lot of attention and it's true.”

Still, no hard evidence has emerged to show that the White House was itself responsible for cooking up the rumors about Rich, or that Trump encouraged Fox News to publish false or misleading information.