Sean Spicer had notice of discredited Fox News story on DNC aide's death

White House press secretary was informed of Seth Rich story Fox News later admitted was not ‘subjected to a high degree of editorial scrutiny’ and retracted

Donald Trump’s former press secretary Sean Spicer was given advance notice while still in the White House about a sensational but later discredited Fox News story on the murder of the Democratic National Committee aide Seth Rich.

Spicer, who quit the White House earlier this month, confirmed to National Public Radio’s David Folkenflik that in April he met Rod Wheeler, a longtime Fox News contributor, and the Republican donor Ed Butowsky, and that they informed him about an investigation they were conducting into Rich’s death.

A month later, Fox News posted the online story that claimed, quoting Wheeler, that Rich had been identified by the FBI as the source of emails hacked from the DNC that were published by WikiLeaks.

The article, billed by Fox and Friends as a “bombshell”, was instantly heralded by the president’s supporters as proof debunking Russia’s role in the DNC hack and suspicions that Trump associates colluded with the Kremlin to distort the 2016 election.

Asked about the story in a press gaggle on the day of its publication, 16 May, Spicer said he was “not aware” of it. On 23 May, Fox News was forced to retract the story, saying it was not “subjected to the high degree of editorial scrutiny we require for all our reporting”.

Now Wheeler has lodged a lawsuit against the news channel, in which he alleges the article was fabricated in a conscious effort to deflect public attention away from the Russian inquiry and on to Rich and other Democratic individuals. He also claims that in addition to Spicer, Trump himself was given advance viewing of the Fox News article and that the president had enthusiastically pushed for its publication.

The complaint, lodged with a federal court in New York, accuses Fox News and reporter Malia Zimmerman of inserting two fabricated quotes from Wheeler into the copy without his permission. The quotes have Wheeler saying he had discovered “some degree of email exchange” between Rich and WikiLeaks and that the murder inquiry into Rich’s death had been blocked by someone within the DNC or Hillary Clinton’s campaign team.

“Mr Wheeler – who was the only named source quoted in the article – did not make these statements,” the lawsuit alleges.

The complaint goes on to make the even more incendiary claim that Trump himself was given a pre-publication look at the Fox News article and that the president pressed hard for its posting. Citing mobile phone texts from Butowsky, the complaint says that “incredibly, the president reviewed an article written by a Fox News journalist prior to its publication”.

The complaint quotes a text allegedly from Butowsky to Wheeler stating: “Not to add any more pressure but the president just read the article. He wants the article out immediately.”

Seth Rich was shot and killed on 10 July 2016, as he was walking back to his apartment in Washington DC. The police investigation found that he was a victim of an armed robbery but his death spawned virulent rightwing conspiracy theories, egged on by Julian Assange and WikiLeaks, who fanned the flames by offering a $20,000 reward for information on Rich’s murder.

Bukowsky, a wealthy Texan investor, approached Rich’s parents and offered to fund an investigation into the shooting, later contracting Wheeler to carry out the work. The lawsuit alleges that the motivation behind the article was to “establish that Seth Rich provided WikiLeaks with the DNC emails to shift the blame from Russia and help put to bed speculation that President Trump colluded with Russia in an attempt to influence the outcome of the presidential election”.

The DNC responded furiously to the allegations in the lawsuit. Xochitl Hinojosa, the DNC’s communications director, said that if they were true it was “beyond vile that the White House – and possibly even Trump himself – would use the murder of a young man to distract the public’s attention from their chaotic administration and Trump’s ties to Russia. The Rich family has begged those responsible for these conspiracies to stop.”

On Tuesday the current White House press secretary, Sarah Huckabee Sanders, said: “The president had no knowledge of the story and it’s completely untrue that he and the White House were involved.”

Butowsky told NPR his comments about the president’s involvement were a joke. In his remarks to the radio broadcaster, Spicer said he was unaware of any contact between Butowsky and Trump. He said his own meeting with Butowsky and Wheeler “had nothing to do with advancing the president’s domestic agenda – and there was no agenda. They were just informing me of the [Fox] story.”

The lawsuit tells a different narrative. It alleges that Spicer asked the two men to keep him informed about their investigation into Rich’s murder, and that Butowsky duly obliged.

Spicer’s admission that he did meet with the duo ahead of publication comes at an uncomfortable time for the White House and for Trump who is already facing scrutiny from the special counsel in the Russia investigation, Robert Mueller, over possible obstruction of justice.

On Monday, the Washington Post reported that Trump himself dictated a misleading press statement signed by his son Donald Jr relating to the younger Trump’s now notorious Trump Tower meeting with a Russian lawyer with ties to the Kremlin in June 2016.

Jay Wallace, a senior Fox News executive, said in a statement that the “accusation that FoxNews.com published Malia Zimmerman’s story to help detract from coverage of the Russia collusion issue is completely erroneous.

“The retraction of this story is still being investigated internally and we have no evidence that Rod Wheeler was misquoted by Zimmerman.”

Allegations that Fox News fabricated an article in order to provide Trump with political cover also comes at an awkward time for the broadcaster. Rupert Murdoch’s Twenty-First Century Fox, the owner of Fox News, is currently awaiting the decision of the UK government over its takeover bid for Sky, based in part on whether or not the company is “fit and proper” to own the British broadcasting giant.

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