Newt Gingrich pushed the Seth Rich conspiracy theory on Fox News, as did Fox host Sean Hannity. (Joe Burbank/AP)
Media Columnist

In an audio-only White House press gaggle on May 16, then-presidential spokesman Sean Spicer fielded a question about the murder of Seth Rich, the former Democratic National Committee staffer who was killed in Washington last summer.

Spicer tripped a bit over his words, but his aim was clear: distance and lack of knowledge.

“I’m not aware . . . I generally don’t get updates on former DNC staffers,” Spicer told a reporter who had asked what the White House had to say about a news report that Rich was in email contact with WikiLeaks before his death. Then he said it was inappropriate to comment on it.

Now, though, we know that Spicer was indeed aware that Fox News was cooking up a story that would eventually be amplified and twisted into a huge, baseless conspiracy theory.

And — if you choose to believe everything in the lawsuit by former police investigator and Fox contributor Rod Wheeler — President Trump himself encouraged the bogus story in advance. (Wheeler’s suit claims he was misquoted by the network.)

(Claritza Jimenez/The Washington Post)

At its most outrageous, the conspiracy theory that grew out of that initial Fox story suggested that Hillary Clinton arranged to have Rich assassinated after he betrayed the DNC by sending internal information to WikiLeaks during the campaign. All of this was based on the idea that an internal mole betrayed the DNC and that Russian hackers had nothing to do with it.

Let’s be clear: There’s no basis for that craziness and never has been. Although the killing remains unsolved, D.C. police continue to view the shooting of 27-year-old Rich as part of a botched robbery attempt.

Spicer confirmed to NPR’s David Folkenflik that he met on April 20 with a Trump supporter, Ed Butowsky, and Wheeler and heard about the story they had in the works.

“I didn’t know who Rod Wheeler was,” Spicer said. But Butowsky introduced him: “I’m sure you recognize Rod Wheeler from Fox News.”

Spicer said Butowsky described what they planned to make public: “They were just informing me of the story.”

Fox retracted the story May 23, a week after it aired, but by then, it was far too late. It was out there in the media ecosystem, seized on by the likes of Alex Jones of Infowars and even former House speaker Newt Gingrich. As Gingrich said on Fox: “It wasn’t the Russians [who hacked the committee’s emails]. It was this young guy who was disgusted by the corruption of the DNC.”

Wheeler’s suit may indeed be a moneymaking scheme, as Butowsky now claims as he denies it all.

Butowsky now says he was just joking when he sent Wheeler a text message that is included in the suit: “Not to add any more pressure but the president just read the article. He wants the article out immediately. It’s now all up to you.”

Each of the defendants, including 21st Century Fox, the Fox News Channel, Fox News reporter Malia Zimmerman and Butowsky, has denied claims brought in the lawsuit.

The suit claims that Fox’s report was intended 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.” (Fox called that accusation “completely erroneous.”)

It charges that Fox and Butowsky, a Republican donor, “created fake news to advance President Trump’s agenda. Mr. Wheeler was subsequently forced to correct the false record and, as a result, lost all credibility in the eyes of the public. Mr. Wheeler has suffered irreparable damage to his reputation and his career will likely never recover.”

Given Wheeler’s mutating role throughout this ugly saga, he cannot be considered a reliable narrator. So, no, you can’t believe everything his suit says.

But some of it rings true.

And some of it is now undeniable: An outrageously bogus news story was known about, and apparently not discouraged, within the West Wing well before it was published.

And once it was published, it become endless fodder for the president’s staunchest defenders: Jones, Gingrich and, more than any other person, Fox’s Sean Hannity — who stopped hammering away at it only when Rich’s parents implored him to stop trashing their son’s name.

One of the ugliest falsehoods of the current political era may have been cheered on by the White House. At the very least, it got tacit approval.

And that’s bad enough.

For more by Margaret Sullivan visit wapo.st/sullivan