On Monday morning, NPR first reported that now-former White House Press Secretary Sean Spicer met with two individuals closely connected to the debunked conspiracy theory that Seth Rich, a staffer at the Democratic National Committee, was murdered in connection to leaked emails coming from the DNC.
The salacious, untrue story was given national attention when it ran on Fox News; however, the news organization was forced to retract it after publication.
Now, one of the individuals who met with Spicer, Rod Wheeler, is suing Fox News and accusing the reporter in question, Malia Zimmerman, of fabricating quotes attributed to him.
The other man involved in the meeting with Spicer was wealthy Trump donor Ed Butowsky.
Wheeler alleges that Fox News and Butowsky attempted to use the conspiracy theory connected to Rich’s murder as an attempt to deflect from the negative media attention surrounding President Donald Trump due to the investigation into the Trump campaign’s alleged ties to the Russian government.
Evidence in the lawsuit includes a voicemail and text of Butowsky saying that the president himself was aware of the story and was reviewing documentation around it. Butowsky later said he was kidding about the president’s involvement.
On Tuesday, Spicer’s replacement, Sarah Sanders, denied the president had any role in the now-retracted story. Sanders said:
“The president had no knowledge of the story, and it is completely untrue that he or the White House had any involvement in the story. Beyond that, this is ongoing litigation, and I refer you to the actual parties involved, which aren’t the White House.”
Spicer has said that he took the meeting as a favor to Butowsky.
For its part, Fox News has also disputed that the story was published in attempts to distract the nation from the Russia investigation. The company’s president, Jay Wallace, said in a statement:
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. 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.
After Fox News ran the original story, it took the outlet a week to issue a retraction despite desperate attempts from the Rich family.
Sanders was asked if it disturbed her that anyone within the Trump White House would even entertain this type of story.
Sanders answered, “It doesn’t bother me the press secretary would take a meeting with somebody involved in the media about a story. None of that was disclosed. They had a conversation, and that was the end of it.”