A retracted Fox News story about the murder of Democratic National Committee staffer Seth Rich was allegedly made up by the network and a supporter of President Trump to distract from stories about the administration's possible collusion with Moscow, a lawsuit obtained by NPR claims.
Private investigator Rod Wheeler, who was Fox News' source for the Seth Rich story, claims in his lawsuit that Fox News reporter Malia Zimmerman made up quotes and attributed them to him in order to spin the story that Rich was killed "mysteriously" after allegedly contacting WikiLeaks. Zimmerman's report was rejected by Rich's family as a conspiracy theory; Washington, D.C., police have said Rich's death was likely a botched robbery attempt.
Wheeler claims he was paid to investigate Rich's death by Ed Butowsky, a wealthy Trump supporter. Butowsky and Wheeler met with then-White House Press Secretary Sean Spicer on April 20 to brief him on the Rich story. "The first page of the lawsuit quotes a voicemail and text from Butowsky boasting that President Trump himself had reviewed drafts of the Fox News story just before it went to air and was published," NPR writes. Butowsky now claims he was joking about Trump reviewing the drafts, and Spicer told NPR he met Butowsky as a favor.
Before the story was published on May 16, NPR reports "Butowsky [sent] an email to Fox News producers and hosts coaching them on how to frame the Rich story." The lawsuit claims Butowsky wrote: "I'm actually the one who's been putting this together but as you know, I keep my name out of things because I have no credibility. One of the big conclusions we need to draw from this is that the Russians did not hack our computer systems and [steal] emails and there was no collusion [between] Trump and the Russians."
On May 23, Fox News retracted the story, saying it did not meet "the high degree of editorial scrutiny we require for all our reporting." Wheeler's suit claims "Fox News defamed him by manufacturing two false quotations and attributing them to him and ruining his reputation by blaming him as the deceptive story fell apart," NPR writes. Fox News' president for news, Jay Wallace, maintains that there is no "concrete evidence" Wheeler was misquoted.
Update 12:14 p.m. ET: In a statement, Wallace said the accusation that Fox News conjured Zimmerman's story to detract from the Russia investigation is "completely erroneous." His full statement appears below.