What we know about a Fox News defamation lawsuit and allegations of a White House connection

JUDY WOODRUFF: Now: an explosive claim and lawsuit alleging the White House had a role in pushing a false news story about a death in Washington, D.C.

The story goes back to the unsolved murder of a young staff member working for the Democratic National Committee named Seth Rich, who was shot early one morning in July 2016.

It's a complicated story. Jeffrey Brown is here to help unpack it.

JEFFREY BROWN: Earlier this spring, FOX News aired a story suggesting Seth Rich was murdered after he had leaked thousands of e-mails to WikiLeaks. In fact, there was no evidence linking Rich to the leaks or his murder to the WikiLeaks case.

FOX News retracted the story a week later. The initial story relied on a former police detective, Rod Wheeler, who's also a longtime paid commentator for FOX News. But Wheeler has now filed a lawsuit against FOX, alleging he was misquoted in the story, and that he was used as a pawn to deflect attention away from the Russia probe.

Wheeler says he worked with a Trump supporter named Ed Butowsky and that the two of them met with then White House Press Secretary Sean Spicer a month before the story ran. He further alleges that the president himself reviewed a copy of the FOX story before it was made public.

Today, the White House denied his claim about the president.

David Folkenflik broke this for NPR and joins me now.

David, welcome to you.

Tell us first about Ed Butowsky and what in essence Rod Wheeler is claiming set this all in motion.

DAVID FOLKENFLIK, National Public Radio: Well, Ed Butowsky is an voluble investor, wealth management consultant down outside Dallas, Texas.

He's been a talking head, unpaid, on FOX News and FOX Business about financial matters, and a reliable, outspoken voice in support of President Trump and his agenda. He announced in February — he goes to the Rich family and says, I'm going to help you be able to afford to have a private investigator solve this mystery of who killed your son and arranges for Rod Wheeler to do it.

He presents himself as a good samaritan who says he's struck emotionally by, this but Wheeler alleges — and I got to say, his lawsuit has an extraordinary degree of supplemental material to support it — Wheeler alleges that Butowsky had an agenda all along, that what Butowsky wanted to do, working hand in glove with a FOX News reporter named Malia Zimmerman, from the outset, that he wanted to prove that Seth Rich in some ways was linked to leak of DNC e-mails, and, indeed, that there may have been a cover-up and that somehow Democratic operatives or figures may have been involved in some way in Seth Rich's death.

So you have a guy — excuse me — you have a guy who basically is saying that FOX News, as a news organization and a Trump backer, are working in concert to try to arrive at a preconceived narrative and story, rather than simply following a journalistic effort to figure out what the facts are.

JEFFREY BROWN: And he's claiming actually even more, right, that this was coordinated perhaps with the White House, this meeting with Sean Spicer and the allegations that President Trump himself might have looked at the script or known about the story.

DAVID FOLKENFLIK: Right. Let's disentangle what we know from what we don't know.

JEFFREY BROWN: Right.

DAVID FOLKENFLIK: What we know is that it is confirmed that all three men, Sean Spicer, at that time the White House press secretary, Ed Butowsky, the investor and backer, and Rod Wheeler, the investigator, all say that they were there April 12 at a relatively brief, maybe 10-, 15-minute meting — excuse me — April 20 — this meeting at which Butowsky and Wheeler unpack for Sean Spicer what it is they have learned in this investigation into Seth Rich.

And Sean Spicer told me last night that he took the meeting as a courtesy, that Butowsky was a friend from Republican circles, and that he was happy to give him an ear for a brief meeting. Butowsky says it wasn't really a meeting about that at all, that he was simply trying to help Wheeler see if he could find a job, something that both Wheeler and Spicer say is just not true.

But what is clear is that, from the e-mails and voice-mails and texts an other materials subsequently, is that Butowsky invokes the White House, invokes powerful people and, yes, even invokes the idea that President Trump has read drafts of the FOX story before it goes to FOX News' site or on the air, and that he wants it out there.

And while that's not been proven, it's certainly was a pressure point from Butowsky to Wheeler that Wheeler believed was true.

JEFFREY BROWN: And just to bring it up to date, Butowsky said to you — now says to you that some of those texts or the claim of a connection to the White House was a joke or was a put-on or he was overplaying it.

And the White House, as I said today, says that there is nothing to that, nothing to the connection with President Trump.

DAVID FOLKENFLIK: You know, Butowsky in person comes off as a guy who says, oh, we're friends, we're pals, we joke, we tease, that's all this was. Wheeler was joking about wanting to work at the White House. I was joking about saying that President Trump took an interest in this.

It is not, I must say, the tenor that you get from reading the transcripts, voluminous, of text messages, voice mails, e-mails, and recorded conversations that Wheeler and his attorneys are providing in this lawsuit, this defamation lawsuit against Butowsky, FOX reporter and so on.

This is a conflict of narratives that are going to have to be played out in court. But Wheeler, I must say, has an unusual degree of material to support his interpretation, his contention. And there is no doubt that Butowsky enjoyed invoking the kind of circles that he seemed to run in or seemed to want to be perceived of as running in.

We don't have proof that Donald Trump ever saw them. And, as you say, Sean Spicer said to me last night he didn't think that ever occurred, and he said he didn't really understand the nature of the meeting that he had. He took it out of courtesy.

JEFFREY BROWN: And, David, finally, what is Fox's response? They're the target of this lawsuit from Mr. Wheeler.

DAVID FOLKENFLIK: Well, they dispute hotly the idea that they defamed Wheeler. They say that they listened to Wheeler's complaints, but also talked to Malia Zimmerman, the FOX News reporter, and that they don't have concrete evidence to prove that he was misquoted.

They don't, though, make an affirmative defense of the journalism that emerged. You know, it seems currently the best-case scenario would be that somehow they would be able to show that Rod Wheeler had allowed or affirmed the idea that the reporter could attribute quotes to him that he hadn't actually said.

Either way, that's not good journalistic practice. I think you're seeing FOX a little bit back on its heels because this story is not defensible. And I think that's why it was retracted back in May.

What you haven't seen from FOX is a full accounting of what went wrong, and our story this morning of the lawsuit has forced FOX to come forward and try to be a little bit more forthcoming.

JEFFREY BROWN: David Folkenflik of NPR, thank you very much.

DAVID FOLKENFLIK: You bet.

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